Interview with director and star of THE SURVIVALIST

As ‘The Survivalist’ gets smothered in superlatives, Paul Byrne talks to leading man Martin McCann and writer/director Stephen Fingleton about vailidation, the studio system and the inevitable end of the world as we know it.

It’s the kind of interview that really would be best captured on film.
Putting Northern Ireland soul brothers Stephen Fingleton and Martin McCann together in a room sparks off a double-act that is hard to do justice to on paper. And hard to transcribe later on, given all the feckin’ laughing.
Of course, Fingleton and McCann have got plenty to laugh about, their first feature together, ‘The Survivalist’, garnering the kind of rave reviews around the world that Harvey Weinstein would happily kill an intern or two for.

McCann plays a man with no name, surviving in a post-apocalyptic near-future that’s free from any sci-fi wonder or any mod cons. Just you, your wits, and a big stick. When a mother and daughter team (renowned Irish stage actor Olwen Fouere and model-turned-actress Mia Goth) bargain sex for a little shelter from the swarms, an uneasy relationship builds. But this future ain’t bright, and trouble is always just a sharpened stone’s throw away. met up with Singleton and McCann at Dublin’s IFI centre, and, hey man, we went deep. Well, it is the collapse of civilasation we’re talking about here, people…

With a great film, the atmosphere on the junket circuit is very different…?
Stephen Fingleton: There’s a difference to how you’re treated in the industry too. Suddenly, it’s an open door.
Martin McCann: What’s that like, Stephen?
SF: It’s nice, Martin. I cannot lie.

The hugely positive reception to the film must have had an impact on both of you.
SF: In Hollywood, even before the film has been shot, even before you’ve got a script to shoot, there are companies out there constantly predicting what your value will be two moves down the line. So, even if the film hadn’t been released, I could have moved onto a big picture next. So, I already felt that before I shot this film. I didn’t make ‘The Survivalist’ as some kind of career move though. I made it as a piece of cinema, and something that will have a legacy, and last beyond today.

‘The Survivalist’ made Hollywood’s Black List of the best unmade scripts – how long was this percolating?
SF: I think the first draft was 2011, and it went wider in 2013, maybe 2014. There was a documentary called ‘Collapse’ [2009], by Chris Smith, where I got the idea. How close society can be to the verge, and I imagined a character, like myself, and how they would react. And I was looking for something that was cast-focused, that you could do on a tight budget, so, ultimately, I could control myself, if need be.

Was the beautiful Martin always the lead here?
SF: Essentially, the film was written with what you would call a lesser-known cast involved. I didn’t want anyone with baggage involved, or anyone in the tabloids. In order to get a film widely distributed, you will always have pressure to go with a well-known actor. But we couldn’t really find an actor who was willing to take the risks here, to expose themselves in this role. I knew Martin was a great actor, because I’d seen him in Michael Lennox’s short, ‘The Back Of Beyond’, and Kieron Walsh’s film, ‘Jump’, and when I had to make this teaser for the film, I was working on Magpie, day two, and I knew I had found the lead actor. I literally hadn’t considered Martin until that point, but I knew, from the moment we start making ‘Magpie’, that this was the actor we needed.

How did you approach this, Martin? Go deeply Method, hang out in Glasgow for a weekend, or just trust the script and your instincts?
MM: I just threw myself into it. I trusted Stephen, and the script was great. So, I knew I was onto something good, and a great script gives you enormous confidence. And I knew that if it was a mess, it would be Stephen’s fault, not mine.

When did you know that ‘The Survivalist’ was going to work?
SF: On the first day of shooting. I saw Mia act – and this was the first time I’d seen her act: I still haven’t seen anything else that she’s done – and I just knew then that we were going to be okay. I’d seen some fashion shoots, but that was about it. Actually, Mia had to go to Paris halfway through the shoot, for a fashion thing She’s in demand…
MM: And I’d cancelled New York, Berlin and Beijing.

And you were so looking forward to that backpacking trek…
MM: Can’t beat it!
SF: Once we had the three cast members all together, it just felt great. The script began to change straight away, because these actors just brought so much to it. Coming from very different approaches, and there was this mad alchemy that just let me know that this was going to be fun.

The fact that Olwen is not of this planet didn’t worry you in any way?
SF: Em, I know it worried Martin….

Well, shapeshifters can be very unsettling to be around.
MM: She’s a shapeshifter, but also, she’s the only woman I’ve ever met where her hair is exactly the same, it’s just a little bit longer, after all this time apart. I think she’s the only actress out there with such a striking feature, and it doesn’t distract, at all. Because Olwen’s so good at what she does.

She has that Tilda Swinton kick…
SF: She has a very intellectual approach to acting, whereas Martin would have that combination of intellect and instinct, and that sparked a lot of great scenes. Olwen knows how everything works, and that’s how I learnt a lot on this shoot. Olwen having a theatre background was a real thrill for me, as I hadn’t worked with someone of her calibre before…

So, the world is doomed, right?
SF: I don’t think modern civilisation is as beautiful as people think. I think nature, the ecology, holds many more mysteries. Secrets for future generations of conscious beings on the planet. Our primacy here is temporary, and if you feel that way, you’re not that worried…

If you don’t believe in life after death, death isn’t so scary…
SF: The basis of evolution is death. It’s not actually life. Death is the knife that keens the shape out of the arrow.

Is that your line, or are you quoting someone?
SF: That’s my line.

Sounds good. I’m going to pretend it’s mine.
MM: Could you pretend that I said it. Say that I always say that.
SF: It’s the iambic pendameter that makes it work.

There you go. The idea that when it comes to man vs nature, nature will always win. There’s so much green in this movie.
SF: There’s no contest. Nature will strangle even the cityscapes, long after man has passed on. Chernobyl is the great example of this. Completely depleted of people, and it’s got the highest count of mammals and birds, and all sorts of animals, in all of Russia. By a Chernobyl three-mile.

For you, Martin, what was the preparation here, to be living in the end of the world?
MM: Well, being from Divis Flats, in West Belfast. Actually, Stephen sent me on a three-day survival course with Survival NI – learnt how to skin a rabbit, how to build my own hut, learnt how to built my own fire, learnt that I would be absolutely hopeless in a situation like this. Doing the film made me realise how dependent we are on the comforts we have, every single day. I’m certainly no Ray Mears, but I’m more aware now about how we are living quite orderly, compared to how we used to live, and how we may have to live again in the future.

But you are a survivor. You made ‘Killing Bono’, and yet, here you are.
MM: Exactly! I’ve been through worse.

There’s been a swing in the world, since at least the 1960s, that we need to be at one with the land around us. Grow your own, and all that. Plus, there are the nutters in the woods in America, armed to the teeth, waiting for Armageddon.
SF: People often confuse their feeling of despair over how inert society is, and the fantasy they have about some kind of cataclysmic showdown over any kind of slow decline – once you believe the latter, you have an emotional connection to the former. But humans are incredibly resilient, and our lifestyles and our conditions in which we live, will decline drastically, but, ultimately, we can’t beat the maths. On a personal level, I think society is completely mad, and it forces people into the position of being hopelessly depressed over unfilled desires, because that’s how they sell more shit. And even saying that, it sounds trite, and very familiar, but the shocking vulgarity of its truth defines most people in the west.
Film audiences are a great example. Let’s make shit films but be consistent seems to be the way most studios think. ‘We need to turn films into product, where we need to keep a consistent low quality rather than trying to make a film that’s great’. That’s what a lot of studios are doing with their franchises. In other words, they’re completely removing the idea of taking audiences on a spiritual journey – which is what great storytelling is all about. Instead, they are turning it into a series of fucking hamburgers made from increasingly regurgitated meat.

Is the very act of being involved in filmmaking make you part of all this bollox?
SF: I’m a very vain individual. I seek validation, from all sorts of strangers. People say they don’t read the reviews – I read all the reviews…

You are getting pretty damn great reviews for ‘The Survivalist’. Is there any fear that they only way is down now? Happens to many a great white hope…
SF: I don’t have a family to support, I don’t have dependents. I don’t have anything that they can use as leverage against me. But I have an obligation to make bigger, and more mainstream films, to tell radical ideas. Because most of the filmmakers that I most admire worked within the studio system. From Kurosawa to Kubrick, they took on the big picture for big audiences. And so I hope – and, perhaps arrogantly, I believe – that I will make it through that process, intact, and be able to tell those stories. Otherwise, I will be lost. Either way, I have to pursue it.

The ego side of it, needing that validation. Is that going to fuck you eventually, especially in world like Hollywood, where everyone absolutely and utterly loves your work.
SF: I don’t take any of it seriously. If somebody kicks the crap out of something I’ve done, they’ll have my attention. Conversely, if someone really, really likes it, I won’t have to give that much thought. We’re on the awards trail with this film – we have the BAFTAS at the weekend – and as good as that is for helping sell your film, it’s not real. The only thing that’s real is the film itself, and in ten or twenty years, you want people to still be watching it. That’s the relevant thing – I want my films to last a long, long time.

For you, Martin, has ‘The Survivalist’ given your career a blast?
MM: For any actor, it’s all about the next gig. This is the most proud of a film that I’ve made, and that certainly puts fuel in your tank. I just feel very lucky to be part of this film, and I’d love to start this film now, knowing what I know now. Looking at any film I’ve made, I rip apart any work I’ve done afterwards, and would always love to do it again.

You’re a busy man right now. You have ‘My Name Is Emily’ coming up, alongside ‘The Rezort’, ‘The Bastard Executioner’ on TV, Saul Abraham and Josh Feder’s short ‘Breaking’…
MM: I’ve no real gauge on anything I’ve ever done, and I can never truly tell what’s good and what’s bad. The response to ‘The Survivalist’ has been notable though, and I know it’s a great film. With anything I’m ever in, I’m the worst person to ask – I can only see the faults.

You can’t see the trees for the woods, man…
SF: I see what you’ve done there.
MM: Unfortunatly, I can never see the trees for the woods. I’ll have to learn how to step back and enjoy…

Words: Paul Byrne

‘The Survivalist’ is in Irish cinemas now. Watch the trailer below…