The first-time director talks to Elbert Wyche about his Tribeca Film Festival world premiere and post-apocalyptic drama based on his 2012 Blacklist screenplay.

The Survivalist

Martin McCann stars as a solitary man living in a forest in Northern Ireland who risks everything when he takes a woman and her daughter into his life. Olwen Fouéré and Mia Goth also star.

The director discusses the origins of the story, his use of limited dialogue and the unique challenges of sound design in his film. K5 handles international sales and co-represents North America with Cinetic.

How did you get the idea for the script and why was this a story you had to tell?
I had my antennae on the look-out for science fiction ideas that you could do without CGI. I was very inspired by a film from Shane Carruth called Primer, which I thought was an excellent and intelligent film about ideas that had no special effects.

I saw a documentary by a guy called Chris Smith called Collapse, which was about civilisation’s addiction to oil and how the growth that society has had before won’t be able to continue when oil production goes into decline. I began to imagine a time of collapse - what strategies would I adapt to survive? What could I do? The character of the Survivalist was one of those instinctive responses; being able to grow your own food, surviving off of the land, being hidden away.

Tell me about any research you did and how that fed into your writing process
I did a lot of reading. Books like Jared Diamond’s Collapse (also a novel), and other books about some of the terrible things that humans have done. What inspired me was Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search For Meaning. It was a major inspiration when I was writing because he talked about the different approaches people have to seemingly hopeless situations. In terms of writing, I tend to write a draft as quickly as I can.

I get actors to read my script in front of an audience. I rewrite and then I get the actors to read it again. I found that’s been the most useful process for me; to get that feedback from the audience as you’re writing. I found the idea of Survivalist quite unpalatable in many ways and I needed to know that people could respond to the story. 

The script landed on the Blacklist. Did that create any opportunities for you?
It was great for validating the script. It’s unusual for a screenplay to have an independent stamp of approval. It’s very valuable in terms of getting cast to read it and getting different financial components in place because the material has already been tested in the marketplace to some extent. If you have a commercial script, obviously a lot more people will want to read your script.

With a project like ours, it has a trajectory that’s laid out in advance. It was never going to be a blockbuster. It’s going to be an intelligent film for audiences who want something different. That’s not what everyone wants to make. The Blacklist was good for getting the best team and talent together that we could. 

How much of the film came together in rehearsal and from collaborating with the actors?
I like to work extensively in rehearsals; reworking the scenes and reworking the script. The script didn’t have a lot of dialogue to begin with. We actually ended up taking out most of it during rehearsal. We found ways of telling the film silently, which we all thought was more effective. We’d discuss what their motivations were and where they wanted to go. I’d be driven by their instincts so that when the audience is watching their decisions it feels authentic.

Where did you shoot and what were some challenges you faced in production or in post?
We shot in Northern Ireland with a mixed crew. We had some people who worked on Game Of Thrones, some from England, and we had some newer crew. One of the big issues was that the entire cast had to be on a special diet for the film. Martin had to lose a lot of weight and Mia and Olwen had to represent how those characters would look in a time of starvation. When we were working six-day weeks for very long hours, a restrictive diet makes your energy levels quite low. That was a big challenge.

One of the biggest issues we had was in post-production. Creating the sound of the film was kind of uncharted territory because we didn’t have any music. We told the story of the film through the sound design. It sat in a world where there’s no traffic, no cars; so the sound was very exposed. It’s very unusual to hear true silence in our modern age.