As Dial M for Movie, we had the chance to interview through mail Mr. Finnegan on his newest movie Vivarium, and we dare to think that we are truly blessed! The interview is full of new insight on the shooting process of the film as well as its conceptualization, and we got very excited when we’ve read the answer to the last question. Don’t scroll down right away! Again, a huge thank you to Mr. Finnegan for this interview. The Turkish and French translations are on the way. Enjoy.
VIVARIUM has a peculiar cinematography that we absolutely love. Can you tell us about the process of transforming the script into the visual canvas that the movie has?
The environment of Yonder was always described as being a very strange place, like the Magritte painting Empire of Light, with no wind, rain, insects or any nature. It’s a place that is artificial and sickening. So the only way to control the aesthetic was to build a set so we could light in a surreal way for daylight and night etc.
We could only afford to build the fronts of three houses in a big warehouse (all reverse angles had to be shot back into the same background by flipping the lighting!) so one of the ways to maximise the use of the set and maintain a claustrophobic feeling was to shoot on long lenses. We had blue screen at the end of the set so when we shot off into the warehouse we replaced the background with 2D matte paintings, plates that had been shot in advance or CG that was created by lidar scanning the set.
One of the inspirations for lighting the set was the photography of Gregory Crewdson and the films or Roy Andersson. We shot on long lenses quite a lot (a 140mm and 180mm) to compress the space and add to the claustrophobia.
Did you ever make or feel the need to make changes to the original scenario, during the filming, on set?
I would run through the scenes and block them with the actors and if it felt like we needed to change something, some action or piece of dialogue, we would. I like to stay flexible and open to new ideas and trying things out while shooting. It’s good to have a creative filming environment.
Vivarium has a very grey setting, which is of course a brilliant choice, in compliance with the subject of the movie. Can you please tell us about the conceptualization process of these pastel colours?
I worked with a friend on a fully CGI test with the camera moving through rows of houses long before we started shooting. In the test I was able to adjust colours, the distance between the houses, the amount of specular reflections on the road etc. I am interested in colour theory and green is a strange colour. In nature it can give the feeling of freedom and verdancy, but when there is no nature and the colour hue is adjusted slightly it can look like poison, like toxic waste or the colour. The pastel minty green also bounces greenish light back onto the actors faces, which helps make them look sick.
Vivarium keeps the suspense very high from the beginning to the end, but we see that the music is not very dominant, at least not as it would be in a horror movie. So what was the train of thought, we wondered, behind the choice of this near-absence of music?
Originally I didn’t want any music at all, just sound design that sometimes becomes like music. But as I worked with Kristian (Eidnes) on the soundscape we felt that certain parts needed score. I wanted the sound and music in the film to be anxiety inducing and oppressive but also emotional and frightening at times, but not derivative of other movies. We experimented and sampled things like glass playing and percussive instruments, then Kristian manipulated them digitally. There is also an organ played in a couple of scenes, which reminds me of church, which fit strongly into the world of the film and it’s themes.
And about the name of the movie, how did you come up with this name? We loved it, needless to say.
It had a few titles before being called VIVARIUM, but we weren’t totally happy with any of them. Cartoonist and artist Cathal Duggan was doing some concept design on the film and he suggested VIVARIUM as a title. We immediately thought that it was perfect, so it stuck.
The movie strikes with a great cast also. How was the casting process, was it hard to decide on the actors, especially for Martin and The Boy?
First I cast Imogen Poots as Gemma and we sat down and talked about who we would get as Tom. We worked on a list and Jesse (Eisenberg) came up. I thought he’d be a really interesting match with Imogen so we sent him the script. Imogen is friends with him, so that helped! He read it pretty quickly and wanted to meet me in NYC. We met and we got on great so he came on board.
The part of The Boy was very tricky. I started with the seven year old version as I knew that would be the hardest. We saw a lot of kids but out of them were like normal seven year olds, shy and naturally childish. When Sennan (Jennings) came in he was very different. He had read the whole script and understood it. He knew who his character was and huge amounts of the dialogue. He even did the throat scene in his audition, which was pretty impressive!
Originally we had the baby, the seven year old, a 15 year old and the full grown boy in the script. So I was trying to find three boys that looked similar but when I saw Eanna (Hardwicke) I realised that we didn’t need a middle boy. The middle boy was only in a couple of scenes, so if we cut one of those scenes (which we did) then it would be too strange to only see him once. Eanna was able to play a little younger and older. His was also able to give the character a very still, calculated and menacing tone, which I really liked. Walter, the boy I was thinking of for the middle boy still got to be in the movie as the guy clapping towards the end.
The estate agent was probably the biggest challenge. Most people were playing him too realistically and not getting the balance of oddness, creepiness and comedy that I was after. Eventually I got a self taped audition from Jonathan Aris and he totally nailed it.
You’ve stated in other interviews that there are some influences like Roy Andersson or Magritte, etc. for the creation of VIVARIUM. Not as an influence of course since Vivarium’s idea goes back to your 2012 short film FOXES, but is Aronofsky’s Mother! like a close relative to your movie or is it a far-fetched guess?
We started working on VIVARIUM back in 2013 so the script was pretty much locked down by the time Mother! came out but I did love it. It was great to see a studio putting out a film that was as interesting and visually arresting as Mother! I’m a great admirer Aronofsky’s work.
We want to ask about the idea of digging a hole in the ground. We found it very metaphorical, it’s a maze but it’s also how houses are made, among humans and animal world as well. While writing this with Garret Shanley, is there a particular story or idea behind it?
To me the hole represents both a job and a mortgage. We get up every morning to go to work so we can pay back the bank for the house we live in. It’s a strange behaviour but a lot of us do it. We keep working and paying off the loan until eventually we meet the end, just on time to die. Tom hears a sound, like a promise of freedom and that is what motivates him to keep digging. But this can be interpreted differently by the audience, there is no wrong interpretation!
VIVARIUM, in a dystopic way, tells the story of people living in designated houses, living the lives that are dictated to them. But in real life as well, unfortunately things aren’t very different. Do you think that Yonder is today’s reality?
I see Yonder as an amplification of reality. By amplifying everything and looking at it from a different angle we can see the absurdity of it more clearly.
And lastly, can you please tell us about your future projects?
I’m working on a new film called NOCEBO, which is a supernatural thriller about fast fashion, the exploitation of the east by west, and the power of the mind to either cure or harm the body. I’m also working on a psychological sci-fi called PRECIPICE, which is about masculinity, consciousness transferral and swarm intelligence.
Realized by mail in the first week of February 2020.