Interview – The Cellar director Brendan Muldowney talks about the new Irish horror

In new Irish horror ‘The Cellar’, Keira Woods’ daughter mysteriously vanishes in the cellar of their new house. She soon discovers there is an ancient & powerful entity controlling their home that she will have to face or risk losing her family’s souls forever.

Where did you get the idea for The Cellar? 
The idea came from a short film I made a few years ago. It was one of the most successful shorts I ever made. When I made it, I thought it was just a bit of fun, but then it took off and won a lot of big genre awards in Europe. It also won Best Short at the New York International Children’s Film Festival. I used to read the comments on YouTube or on Atom films, which was a platform around years ago for short films. All the comments used to say what happens next. For years I thought I would come back to this someday. I tried over the years to adapt it. The first adaption was an extended version of the short film, but it didn’t work too well. There wasn’t enough material in the short film. It just wasn’t enough to spread it out to make it into something bigger. I can’t remember how many versions and how many times I tried to rework the short. I tried with different characters and different interpretations. I did a version where another family would move into the house. I have versions with druids and ancient myths. I tried a million other things. I had plenty of ideas but finding the right ideas that click is harder. It comes down to the character. I decided I wouldn’t use a new family but develop the existing family’s story. I always knew that a mother would be looking for her daughter because it’s a great hook for an audience.

How did you go about casting Elisha Cuthbert? 
We talked to Eoin’s [Macken] agent, who also takes care of Elisha. As soon as she was suggested, I immediately thought can we talk?” The moment I spoke to her on the phone, I just knew she was right for the part. She was enthusiastic about everything. She saw the film how we saw the film, so she was just perfect. She’s blonde, but I always thought the character would have dark hair, but I didn’t want to bring it up. I didn’t really know how to say to her that I wanted her to dye her hair, but she was on the same page for some reason. She suggested that she dye it before I had the nerve to bring it up. Elisha is Canadian. She was going to be a fish out of water. I didn’t want her to have to do an Irish accent. It made sense to let her keep her accent.

Was the character always going to be Canadian?
The fact that the character isn’t Irish was designed around Elisha, but there was no design as such. I don’t mention it in the film. I thought I’d write a few things to explain it at one stage, but then I thought, no. There are people from other countries who live in Ireland. It didn’t need to be explained.

Elisha’s character Keira has a much more significant part than is usual in the genre. Her husband Brian, Eoin Macken’s character, isn’t that useful when things go wrong. It’s all down to Keira to try to save her daughter. Was it intentional to the genre on its head?

Yes, it was. You can see at work that she’s the boss of the company. I have backstories. I worked out that she had started the company. He was a graphic designer in the company, so he’s always on her coattails. I thought it was especially important in the times we’re in now. It was the right thing to do.

The house is central to the story. How did you find it? 
We knew we would shoot in the west of Ireland because we had received some financing to work there. We looked at a few places in Roscommon, and at first, we thought we might not be able to find what we were looking for. Then COVID happened, so we had to postpone everything. As things were starting to open again in the summer of that year, we went back down for another scout. At that point, I was told that it had to be Roscommon due to the funding. I was worried that we wouldn’t find the right type of house. As it happens, the first house we looked at in Roscommon is what you see in the film. It is spectacular. It’s famous, and it has a remarkable history. There are connections to the Vikings and St. Patrick. There were so many valuable antiques in the house that we had to remove everything in case we damaged them. But we were so lucky to find it. It is a fantastic house.

Did you build the cellar, or is it in the house? 
I looked at a few houses with cellars, and I never saw what I was looking for. This house had a long corridor with the door at the end and a few other doors along the way. The door at the end that in the film leads to the cellar leads to a dining room. We were able to put a fake wall behind the door; inside that, we created a fake cloakroom so people could walk in and turn left as though they were heading down the steps. Then we recreated the same cloakroom on a set and built the cellar. The production designer Owen Power came to me with all sorts of designs. My biggest concern was the steps. They are so important to the plot. I wanted to use lots of camera angles around the stairs, and he was able to design them how I imagined them. We were fortunate with all the locations because of COVID. People weren’t at work, so we had the chance to film inside Roscommon County Council offices; we could use it for the police station and Keira’s office. I was worried about filming in Roscommon initially. I wondered how we were going to do the advertising company where they work because I’m trying to make it an international film that will travel. People expect a particular look for an advertising company. And there you go, right in the middle of Roscommon, is the amazing County Council building.

There is symbolism and mythology in the film, but quantum physics also plays a part. Did you do much research? 
I’ve been very interested in quantum physics for a while. I don’t understand it properly, but I like to try and understand it and read layman’s books. There is one scene where Aaron Monaghan’s character speaks about it for a few minutes but had to cut it out because it’s not that type of film. It was just boring to have that in horror. The rest of it, the sigils and myths are just good old horror stuff; there is nothing too complicated there if you know the genre.

Your last film, ‘Pilgrimage’, was set in the Middle Ages, and The Cellar has references to that time. Is that a coincidence?
It is a coincidence, but you know, it’s bizarre because the next thing I’m working on is going back to the Middle Ages again. I never actively knew it, but obviously, I am drawn to it.

Casting kids can be challenging; tell me about finding Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady (Steven) and Abby Fitz (Ellie)?
With COVID, there were no auditions, so it was down to casting tapes which we narrowed down. Dylan and Abby both stood out from the start. I worked over Zoom with the potentials before deciding. Talent can be evident from the start. When it is there, it makes choosing easy.

You have an eye for talent; you cast a young Tom Holland in Pilgrimage before the world got to know him as Spider-Man.

I first said to Tom Holland; you’re just one of these lucky people who’s got a face that you absolutely believe and have empathy for, and you don’t even have to do anything. He could talk to you on zoom, or you could film him watching a fly and you are sucked in. He just has IT.

From young legends to acting legends, you cast the wonderful Marie Mullen. Can you tell me about that? 
She was great to work with, and she was enthusiastic and so up for it. It can be hard for day players because they come in, the cast and crew know each other. We’re working at an incredible rate of speed because we’re under time pressure. The advantage in having someone with that experience coming in is that they know what to do and have the quiet confidence to come in, get on set and just do the job. It was brilliant to have her.

Can you tell me a little about creating the beast without spoiling things?
It was one of the first things we started because a production designer told me that creatures and monsters take forever, so we started very early on his look. We could have spent much more money because, on a low budget, you don’t have the funds to cover expensive creatures, but even if we had millions to make that creature, I still think the best way of shooting any creature is the same as the shark in Jaws. Don’t show too much. I tried my best not to put it on screen too much because it’s scarier to see a shadow. Unless it’s like a Godzilla creature feature where you want it to be all about the creature, you have no business showing the monster too much. It must be shown at the right moments to be effective.

What is it like to be chosen to play at SXSW?
It is brilliant. The film will be shown at the Midnighters section of the festival, which is fantastic. It is incredible to be chosen; to be at one of the biggest genre festivals in the States is amazing. It really bodes well for our release. Not just here, but with its theatrical release in the States as well.

Do you want audiences to take a message for this, or because it’s a horror, do you just want people to have the bejesus creeped out of them? 
Have fun with it; it is a fun night out, get the popcorn, and the drinks in and enjoy it.

Words – Cara O’Doherty

THE CELLAR is at Irish cinemas from March 25th