‘Here Before’ is a Northern Irish psychological thriller that premiered at the renowned SXSW Film Festival last year. We caught up with Belfast born writer/director Stacey Gregg to talk about the movie arriving in Irish cinemas on February 18th
Where did the idea come from, and what made you change direction from theatre to film? The idea had been with me in seed form for a long, long time. There was a bit of Megan [Niamh Doran’s character] in me, and I was quite obsessed with the paranormal and reincarnation and general spookiness. So, this idea about a little girl moving to a new place that she’d never been to before and driving past the graveyard and saying something like, “that’s where they put me in the ground”, I’d always had that as a little something, but I didn’t know what it was. I was working at a theatre in London, and my laptop was broken, and I asked them if I could have a little space in their office. I had a week there, and even though I’d gone there to write a theatre piece, I ended up writing the screenplay because the idea felt like it really wanted to get out. I didn’t even know how to format it because I’d never written for the screen. It just came out. The first draft of Here Before was very close to what we shot in the end. I think the pivot to film was always there. I was always interested in theatre; it was the more accessible place. I love theatre, don’t get me wrong, and I wanted to be a playwright and a theatre maker, but I’ve always had an interest in different forms. My first interest was visual arts. I thought I might be a musician for a while; I’m in the general creative zone. I get a real thrill when I get a little idea. What best serves it? Is it theatre, TV, or film?
This is your first feature film, and you have Andrea Riseborough in the lead role. How did that come about? I was always a massive fan of Andrea. As the film started to feel like it was really going to happen, I started to visualise who it might be. I voiced my dreams out loud, and the people around, my producers, and my agent said, let’s shoot for the stars and see what happens. I wrote her a very genuine email saying I’d followed her career, what this piece meant and whether she might consider it. Andrea being a legend, read it quickly and really responded to it. We met up in Soho and talked about it, and we clicked. It was as smooth as that, which is a real blessing for a first-time filmmaker. Working with her was genuinely a dream. She’s an incredible artist, and I think she delivers a really beautiful performance.
We have seen actors play grieving characters, and they are often overwrought, but Andrea plays Laura grounded. How important was that? That was something we talked about a lot, and it was in the writing. We need to know Laura is doing all right. It was really important to me because we’ve seen so many thin representations of women, especially women who maybe have experienced a loss. I really wanted to start from that place with Laura’s strength before things start to unravel. Andrea understood that implicitly and it’s a very grounded, very believable, beautiful performance.
Were you concerned about her being able to do the accent? That was one of the cosmic things if you believe in that kind of thing. Andrea had done Shadow Dancer years ago. I remember seeing her in that and being like, fair play to you, that’s a good accent. What’s amazing is that the accent in Here Before is a slightly different Northern Irish accent. She’s just that method and a talented performer. I think it’s pretty bullseye.
Your young actors, Niamh Doran, and Lewis McAskie are excellent. How did you cast them? Where other people might see it as a little bit of a challenge, I was always really excited about finding the kids. We work with Carla Strong Casting in Belfast, and they’re brilliant. They threw the net wide, and they were a pleasure to work with. What was interesting was when we saw the first couple of rounds; Niamh was so inexperienced that she didn’t learn lines, so we were improvising. I was looking for something natural. I wasn’t looking for a stage kid who could just learn. Niamh is so spirited, and she has this incredible combination of being so little but also carrying an incredible gravitas. And she’s an incredible improviser. Once we got her, she was such a big part of the puzzle. Lewis plays a boy [Tadgh] who is very protective of his mother but finds his own emotions unwieldy. I always say Tadgh is the truth seer in the film, but he’s not really being heard. Lewis has an older head on his shoulders. Both the kids were super professional, and there was a really warm environment on set. I would work with them both again at the drop of a hat. They’re both great.
You mentioned improvisation. Is it hard for your writer side to allow actors to improvise? The texture of authenticity is paramount. I need to believe the performances; I need to believe what I’m hearing and seeing. One way to do that, especially working with younger actors, is to keep it fresh. My method would often be to shoot the scene a couple of times and then let it breathe. I would let them explore or experiment a little bit, and quite often, because we were working so fast, I might see something and just say to the camera guys to film because there might be a little bit of magic. Some of that made its way into the film, and it gives the film a really lovely texture and really allows the audience into these family units and these characters.
Time is often tight on films. With your theatre background, did you rehearse before filming started or dive straight into it? It was a little bit of both. It was hugely unnerving not to have proper rehearsal time, but I’ve learned very quickly how film operates when it works best, and there’s a real freshness and a spontaneity to it that you can really embrace. We didn’t rehearse, we made sure everybody felt the energy of each other and got the family dynamic, but we didn’t really go over lines. We made sure everybody knew who they were and what they were doing. Time was really tight; we had to be on our toes again, always looking for the things that we really believed and going after those. Andrea brought Laura’s character on day one, so we didn’t meet Laura until we were shooting, which is a magical way to work, but you have to have a lot of nerve.
The two houses are more characters than average homes, shot in quite particular ways. How important was it to show that two identical houses can have completely different things going on inside of them? Really important. When I was dreaming about this film, I always talked about how I wanted it to feel a certain way. I get sad sometimes when people seem to reduce films by saying that they’re domestic. Often, I think female stories have been reduced in that way. I really had a cinematic vision for this film, and I wanted to really juxtapose the suburban and the mundane with something that felt uncanny and defamiliarized. That sense of exactly not always knowing who is lying next to you in bed or who your next-door neighbour is and how these families are pushed up so closely together. They are on the same circuit – they put the bins out, do the school run, go to the shop, but energies that can flow underneath those relationships can be very different. What happens when the lid blows off? That was always very much baked into the visual language of the piece, so when we found that location on the hill, it was just right.
Northern Irish film is having a great surge; how does it feel to be part of it? Awesome. When I set out to do whatever I was going to do, I felt like I had to be in London. I don’t regret that, but I’m back now in a way that wasn’t possible ten years ago. Having tried to tell stories as a writer set here for such a long time and finding that impossible for so long. There was no desire or appetite for it. To know people from here are using their voices, our stories are being told and heard; it’s really exciting. I think especially because Northern Ireland was so wrapped up in the identity of the troubles for so long. There are plenty of untold Troubles stories, but there is an appetite for more now. We know who we are, and there’s nothing more exciting than seeing fresh representations of that reflected back to you. Growing up, you rarely even heard a Northern Irish accent. To feel like you are a part of not just claiming that but celebrating it, exploring it, interrogating, I’m thrilled.
What was it like to have your first feature debut at South by Southwest? Awesome. You know, I can’t lie when I first set out to make the film, I was like I’ll keep going until I get found out. I felt very excited to be getting the opportunity, and I just didn’t want to mess it up. I felt that I would make the best thing I could possibly make and just see what that meant. So, for the film to then get a platform like South by Southwest and to have been received the way it has been received has been incredibly validating for the whole team and everyone who supported getting the film to this point.
I assume bringing it home to the Belfast Film Festival must have been a dream come true. Yes, especially after a year of COVID and not getting to see it in a space with actual people, to be able to bring it home and see it in Belfast was lush. It was really lovely, and it was a great festival to be part of this year; there were so many homegrown productions with [Kenneth Branagh’s] Belfast being the jewel in the crown. It was such a great atmosphere.
Are you the type of filmmaker who wants the audience to take something specific from the film? I’ve always been the kind of artist who likes to ask questions rather than tell people what to think. I love work that makes me think, makes me question. My favourite thing is whenever people have slightly different experiences or interpretations of work; nothing makes me happier than people having a hot debate on the way out of something. It means that it lives on, and it means that there’s space for people to engage critically, artistically, or emotionally. I know what the gesture of the film is and what the offer is, but I think, because of the genre elements, people can go and enjoy the film. But I also am interested in hitting people on other levels. The film says a number of things, and I guess that’s an audience experience. Some people will feel one thing, and some people will see another, and I like that.
You have just worked on HBO’s new show, ‘The Baby’. What was it like working in TV? Life is wild. Four years ago, I directed my first short film without an eye really to where that might lead. Then Here Before came about relatively quickly, in terms of how the finance came together, and then the HBO show came quickly. It was a massive learning curve again. I think it’s going to be a brilliant wild show. I’m really proud to be a part of it. I don’t think I would have jumped into any old TV show. I wasn’t looking to go into TV, but when I got wind of the premise of the show, it just felt like people are out there making really interesting, fresh, challenging political stuff, you know? I’m often led by what excites me rather than a career trajectory. I couldn’t resist it, and it’s been a really enriching experience. We were shooting with animals; we were shooting with babies. I’ve learned so much about VFX. It’s been incredible. I’m really excited for the show to go out.
Interview by Cara O’Doherty
HERE BEFORE is at Irish cinemas from Friday Feb 18th
Catch a special screening at Dublin’s IFI cinema this Friday Feb 18th – followed by a Q&A with director Stacey Gregg and hosted by Kate Dolan, for tickets visit https://ifi.ie/film/here-before-qa/