Canal bank bleak
Inspired by Bergman, filmed in a toilet: Ivan Kavanagh on his new horror
Some decades ago, Ivan Kavanagh, an Ingmar Bergman addict from Finglas, was pondering whether or not to go to film school.
“I thought about film school, then looked at the fees I’d have to pay and decided to get a new camera instead,” he says.
There is an encouraging lesson here. Even if you haven’t yet seen The Canal, Kavanagh’s new off-centre horror, you will know we wouldn’t be publishing this piece if the story had ended unhappily. Following The Canal’s triumph at the Tribeca Film Festival, Kavanagh was head-hunted by the studios. He is now working on a series for a “major network” (about which he can say little) in distant Sweden.
“I am such a Bergman fan it seemed inevitable I would end up here, eventually,” he laughs. “I really should learn the language now. But, yeah, Tribeca was the main thing. It was so well-received there. Americans took it to their hearts. I’d never been to a festival where people were so open in their praise.”
The Canal is a properly unsettling piece of work. Rupert Evans plays a cinema archivist who, following the disappearance of his wife, becomes convinced that a vicious spirit is haunting his Victorian house. Making good use of footage that effectively apes nascent silent cinema, marinated in odious sound design, the picture combines queasiness with jump shocks in equal measure.
Kavanagh is not the sort of fellow who plans his career with a spreadsheet, but it is, nonetheless, just the sort of film that attracts mainstream attention.
“It was, to some extent, about memories of films that had terrified me a child,” he says. “When I was young – too young, probably – I saw Bergman’s Cries and Whispers. There is a dream sequence and Liv Ullmann goes into her sister, who’s died but somehow she’s still talking to her. I remember seeing that and being terrified. Also the end of Rosemary’s Baby.”
Again with the Bergman. For all its distinguished heritage, The Canal is a genre piece at heart, notable for featuring the most unpleasant cinematic loo since the one in Trainspotting.
“We knew at once when we found the location,” he says. “It was still not as disgusting as I wanted. We had to add a bit to it. It was an old toilet, but we had to make it even more horrible. The smell in there was horrible. The stench. And it was the hottest day of the year. Poor Rupert was genuinely retching when he had to vomit. But I was in my element.”
The Canal is the closest Kavanagh has come to shooting on a comfortable budget. Made for just under ¤1 million, the film is dirt cheap by mainstream standards, but still cost 10 times more than any of his previous films.
“You realise quickly how little money that is when you have prosthetics and effects planned,” he says. “But, you know, the problems you have on lower budget films should be the same ones you have on bigger budget production. They should always be creative problems.”
The self-taught film-maker is less constrained by weary templates and hoary conventions. In the early days, Kavanagh casually broke rules that he didn’t know existed. If, however, you want to get your films seen you will eventually have to engage with the industry. It seems as if the director just blundered his way towards funding after years of getting by.
“There was no plan. It just happened. I funded my first three feature films. I was the worst securi- ty man ever. I worked in bars. Then out of the blue Simon Perry, who was head of the Film Board, called me in. I’d never really applied for funding. He said: what do you want to do next? The Irish Film Board have supported me ever since.”
Kavanagh began with an interesting, rough-edged family drama called Our Wonderful Home. After that, he set to work on a breathtaking tragedy called The Fading Light. Though barely released in cinemas, it received cracking reviews and won Best Irish Film and Best Actor from the Dublin Film Critics Circle at the 2010 Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.
More than a few saw traces of, yes, an Ingmar Bergman influence in there.
“I grew up loving Hollywood and art-house,” Kavanagh says. “But I think Bergman’s the genius. If I’m ever uninspired, I’ll stick on Winter Light or Cries and Whispers.”
Kavanagh has to get back to work on his mystery project. When that’s all finished, he will make a trip to Fårö, “Bergman’s island”, in the Baltic.
“I want to make the pilgrimage.”
The Canal goes on release next Friday
Making good use of footage that apes nascent silent cinema, marinated in odious sound design, The Canal combines queasiness with jump shocks
Director Ivan Kavanagh. Below: Rupert Evans and Antonia Cambell
Hughes in The Canal