Interview – Director Lee Cronin talks EVIL DEAD RISE

Dublin born director Lee Cronin’s break-out Irish film ‘The Hole In The Ground’ was so well received it got him the job of directing one of the biggest horror franchises of all time. Here he presents a fresh take on the cult ‘Evil Dead’ series, relocating the horror to LA where evil forces wreak havoc on a family.

Is it fair to say that women and in particular, mothers are very important in your life? I say this because, women and mothers are very strong figures in your films.

Yeah, I think so. I think certainly with Evil Dead Rise. And then with my previous movie, The Hole in the Ground, there has been these strong maternal figures. And, you know, I was the youngest in my household growing up, my next nearest sibling was my sister. And she’s a mother of three kids, my own mother was a really big influence in my life as well.

Not to say that my brothers weren’t, but I do find that the power and strength of the maternal figure in somebody’s life is quite an interesting place to go and look, and to tell stories and the pressures that that brings. All parents have their place and have different responsibilities and they’re single fathers as much as they’re single mothers. And there’s lots of different ways of looking at family and how family’s function, but I always base what I write on the things that I’ve experienced, the things that I see. And a lot of what I do is often interconnected back to my thoughts about family.

How important was it to get your family right, in this film? They’re an incredible bunch of characters. I imagine that it was really tough to find the character of Ellie, because of what she goes through in the film.

Yeah, yeah. I think like getting the family right for this movie was everything because it’s a story about extremely dangerous, powerful, evil forces attacking innocence. That innocence in this case, is the family. And so that family must be a group that we’re both identifiable and likeable and felt real, and whole and felt rounded. What was really important was you needed to get to know these characters very quickly. This was due to the nature of this type of movie, an Evil Dead movie, which has so much spectacle and energy, when you reach the peak of the rise, I daresay and you drop, like it’s the roller coaster that keeps on going.

It was very important to have actors that could perform in a very naturalistic way and embody some truths and breathe as real, as I like to say, as they possibly could. I think specifically with Alyssa Sutherland, who played Ellie, she’s somebody that needs to play two parts because she needs to portray a confident person, with hints of vulnerability, a mother and you know, figure inside this family, who’s then compromised by these tremendously powerful demonic forces that subvert all that’s good about her, and use that in the most sinister way possible. That’s why I brought her in, she was able to play both sides of that role, with great power in both places. Then especially, you know, on that side, when she becomes something that’s truly threatening to the family, I think she delivered something very special.

A particular favourite of mine, because of I wonder how the behind the scenes worked, was Nell Fisher. I must ask; how was it working with Nell in such an intense and I would argue, possibly traumatic environment?

It’s interesting. It is very true to say that, like, when you’re shooting horror on set, it’s rarely particularly frightening, it’s fun. Because at the end of the day, those actors are not seeing things, through the lens that I’m seeing them, they’re not seeing the monitor in the way that I’m seeing it, or necessarily have their brains as in tune with the level of context and the level of interconnectivity and things that’s going on within a scene.

Nonetheless, of course, there’s really terrifying things that are brought into that space, whether through blood or through seeing the impressions of violence, or whatever it might be. So, when working with a young performer from very early on, the most important thing is honesty with them and their parents. The reason being they understand what they’re getting into. So, there’s many conversations in the build-up so they understand the things that they’re doing and why they’re doing them. Then for me as a filmmaker, what I like to do when I’m working with young performers is to bring them on the inside of the preparation for these things so that they can see the mechanics of how it works, and then they feel like they’re part of that team, and they start to see it as a lot more fun.

Equally, when you do that, it’s important that they don’t see it as fun when they’re acting because you need the intensity of the performance. You need the fear, you need the emotion. And that’s what made Nell so brilliant, was her ability to go to the place that she needed to present, innocence and fear to present strength when required. And it was quite spectacular to see a nine-year-old come on set and be asked to be left alone for five minutes, so that they could find the emotional place they needed to be in when the cameras rolled. She was an unbelievable professional, unbelievable talent and was able to bring all the vulnerability and fear when needed. She never felt scared off camera, because she enjoyed the fact that we were making something so insane.

Speaking of the insanity. I found an interesting bit of trivia about the amount of blood that you’ve used on this, that you seem quite proud of.

Yeah, it’s a lot of blood. And I think the thing that’s always worth mentioning is that six and a half litres was real, sticky, icky. That wasn’t water with red food colouring, it wasn’t poster paint. It wasn’t, there was no shortcuts. And because it was something when I spoke to the leader of our practical effects department who would look after blood, prosthetics, and makeup, I was like, I want the blood to be a character in the movie, it needs to be convincing, and real, and sticky and slippery. And often, there’s other ways of cheating, you know, both with like digital blood, or, as I said, like, other coloured substances.

This was like, cooked up in an industrial kitchen and cost a lot of money. You know, it’s not cheap to make this stuff at the scale that we needed. And for the actors, it was hard going because it nearly turns your body into cling film. You stick to yourself; you’d see actors like trying to open their hand and all their fingertips are like stuck together. It’s hardcore, but that adds to the intensity and gives the blood a personality, just like it would be if it was real blood, you know? Yeah, it’s mental.

So as a director, was it just a playground?

Yeah, like, I think like, everything brings its own challenges. Therefore, you have very particular experiences in relation to how you feel about those moments. I do love the peep hole scene because I love that you have the audience using their imagination in certain ways. As much as they see very visceral things. It’s the fact that they really must use their imagination when they explore it. I also, really loved the sequence we created for the earthquake. I also adored the finale of the movie, where just when you think this thing can’t go any further, we really try and double down on the horror and take it where it goes. That was very technically challenging to create. Every part of the movie, it’s like, they’re all my children. I love them in different ways for different reasons.

However, I do love when the movie turns in a certain direction, because I’ve seen it with test audiences. You can feel the shift in the room from that point. You can feel the fact that people are fully engaged and kind of strapped in. For me, it’s that whole experience, I think, and then overall, I think what I’m proudest of is although it’s terrifying, and you know, super scary and crazy and all of these things, I wanted to make an entertaining movie, so that even if you’re scared, you can eat popcorn, have a good time, you are not going to walk out of the cinema and not be able to talk about what you’ve just gone through and experienced with the person that you went with. So more than a scene I think it’s the experience aspect of those scenes that I liked the most.

What was it like preparing that intimate set?

The thing is an Evil Dead movie must be contained like that. There are elements in the DNA of it all. I know, had I turned that into an entire buildings worth of stuff happening it actually wouldn’t be an Evil Dead movie anymore. It would, it would become something else, it would be like The Raid meets a zombie movie or something, it just wouldn’t be the same thing. This is about a small group of characters that are bound in some way.

In this case, it’s family, which is possibly more emotional than we’ve seen before in an Evil Dead. You’ve got to basically lock them down, you know. It was important that again, that the home became a character, this family lived there for a long time. So, lots of layers of history and detail which allowed the place to feel very colourful and alive in a lot of ways. The challenges when you’re shooting inside a small location is finding new ways and finding new angles. However, because we built the sets, in a bespoke way to suit my screenplay, we knew where we needed to put in camera ports to get interesting angles, we knew when we’d need to pull a wall out, we had the place rigged. It was like a machine in its own right; it was ready to do these things.

So like the bathroom set, where we knew there’d be some earthquake related footage, we were able to put these giant balloons underneath it to lift it off the ground and then shake. The set itself was a machine that was created to deliver on all of the crazy ideas that are kind of in the screenplay. Beyond the apartment, there is the hallway, there is the elevator, there is a parking lot, there are these places where we get to go. Primarily it’s in the apartment.

I think, one of the crazy things about this movie is like it took us over 60 days to film, even though it’s super contained. Usually a contained horror movie, like this you would be shooting in maybe half that time or less. It came down to it being so packed full of detail and ideas. It’s not really a movie that ever repeats a shot that often you know. There’s always a shot doing something new and pushing the experience forward. That was challenging inside a smaller set. Thankfully, I think we shot every possible corner we could have of that set. I don’t believe we left any stone unturned.

How was it coming into such a beloved franchise and adding your own signature to it?

I’m an Evil Dead fan from childhood. So given the opportunity to make an Evil Dead movie, I was very excited. I’m also a filmmaker in my own right with my own voice and my own vision. That excitement, the early excitement was tempered by I’d love to do this, but only if I can find a story that I want to tell and a pathway. The exciting part was that the original producers and filmmakers behind the movie, Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert, and Bruce Campbell, they weren’t looking to do what had been done before. They wanted to do something new. That’s part of why they spoke to me.

I’m sure there’s some people out there that wouldn’t see the natural leap from The Hole in the Ground to Evil Dead. They’re tonally very different, The Hole in the Ground was like a whisper at the back of your neck. Evil Dead Rise is like a scream in your face, tonally very different. I always had confidence that I could go to that place because I think I can play with a lot of different energies within the horror space, and the guys saw that too. I never felt like particularly nervous because I knew I understood the DNA of what makes an Evil Dead movie special.

I was able to communicate that with the producers early on and get their backing and they gave me the confidence through trusting what I was trying to do, trusting my ideas, trusting the vision for it. They placed that trust in me because as I said they wanted this to be something that was new, that could make the fans happy but also bring in a new audience and the movie is littered with Easter eggs. At the same time, it’s got new characters, new circumstances, new time, new place. I think it offers both a really great experience for the fans but also maybe a first-time experience for people that have never seen a movie like this in the cinema. If they want to go and be like, super entertained, super scared, pick their jaw up off the floor, pick their popcorn out of their pockets, because they’ve spilled it everywhere. It’s that type of movie.

Interview by Graham Day

EVIL DEAD RISE is at Irish cinemas from April 21st