Monday, June 22, 2009

What lives in Blackheath Woods?

I'm fascinated by the fae. Not the Tinkerbell kind of fairies, Disneyfied out of all ambiguity, but the elemental, primitive spirits believed to exist in pre-industrial times. They don't often make it into popular media unprocessed for mass consumption, but occasionally one slips through, as in this brilliant short film by Ciaran Foy:

(apologies for the Portuguese subtitles; it's the only copy I could find online. Posted here with the filmmaker's permission.)

I spoke to Irish filmmaker Ciaran Foy (seen below directing actress Katie Keogh) about this film, after reading that it originated as a reaction to the 1997 film Fairy Tale: A True Story.*

Alex: What about that film specifically inspired this very different, and much more brutal, take on the fae realm?

Ciaran Foy: I think it was the whole prissy tone of it. You know, the prim and proper upper class English girls wide-eyed in awe at the "ever so beautiful" and benevolent Faeries. It just felt wrong to me. In Ireland the Faerie or Sidhe (shee) race are not depicted like that at all. Quite the contrary. There are many parts of the country that still very much believe in their existence and one thing you do not do is disturb, anger or insult the Sidhe. In fact they are quite feared. In folk belief and practice, the Sidhe are often propitiated with offerings. With this in mind it was thought best never to name them directly, so they were referred to in euphemisms such as "The Good Neighbors," "The Good Folk," "The Little Folk," "The Gentry," or simply "The Folk," in the hope that if humans describe them as kind, they are more likely to be so.

In other words I wanted to take the Victorian cliché of little girls and angelic faeries and make it clash with the Celtic myth. Essentially taking something esbablished in the public conscious, and turning it on it’s head.

Was the belief in faeries part of your experience growing up?

I grew up in Dublin city, so on a day to day level, no. But we had relatives in the countryside where it was very much part of the experience and whenever we went to visit we would hear about it. There was a small bridge on the way to my aunts where it was considered bad luck if you didn't say, "Good morning faeries," whilst going over it. There was a farmer who lived near them who claimed that three of his sons had died because they had "been messing" at a faerie ring. Another local woman would always leave her front and back doors open at all times, to allow the Faeries a path way through. It's just part of the vernacular. The faeries are to be feared. The Bean Sidhe or Banshee (which means, faerie woman) was someone who you heard wailing before a death would occur. The person who didn't hear the wail was usually the victim. They say the doomed DeLorean car factory in Lisburn was warned it was being built on a faerie mound, etc. So relating faeries to notions of benevolence and innocent frolicking was just not heard of! You have to remember, occurrences like the burning of Bridget Cleary were scarily common in the 19th century. Ideas get passed down and in isolated communities they tend to remain in one form or another. In researching [his new film] The Shee, it was made obvious to me that there are still pockets of the country where these beliefs are staunchly held. And to suggest to them that their beliefs are just silly superstitions is like suggesting to a dogmatic Christian that their beliefs are but the same - some people will even get angry at you. So it's still there.

That all said, the believers tend to be from older generations, so it's possible this may be the last or one of the last generations of believers. The world is becoming a smaller place.

Was the design of the faeries dictated by the time of year in which you filmed, or was it the other way round? What else influenced the design?

Well the design of the faeries was by Olwen Kelleghan. She’s amazing at coming up with psychologically freaky designs. I asked her to create a faerie that was vicious yet felt real. She did a number of sketches and one of them was like a cross between some twigs, an insect, and a concentration camp victim. It was horrible yet felt very organic. I’d never seen anything like it on screen before (this was way before Pan's Labyrinth) and I wanted to use it. One integral part of the design was that they had these rotting autumn leaves for wings. So in a static state they would look just like leaves while resting on a tree. In fact, for the final shot in the short, I initially wanted Melissa to back away and we would reveal a full tree behind her that was literally 'brimming with faeries' – we just couldn’t afford to get it done. So the design of the faeries came first. We shot in April and just graded to be autumnal looking.

Are you faeries intelligent and therefore vengeful, or do they attack Melissa instinctively?

Hmm… I’ve never been asked that before… I guess they are mostly instinctive, as I wouldn’t imagine you could ‘reason’ with my faeries. The same way if you disturbed an ant hill, you would expect instinctive attack. But that said, do you consider ants intelligent? Well, they builds cities, farms, raises animals, and organize themselves into a complex society complete with social ranks such as nobles, soldiers, workers and slaves. I guess it depends on ones definition of intelligence.

Do you feel Melissa deserved her fate?

Yes and no.

Yes, in the sense of the fable like ‘fairy tale’ feel of it. Like the best of the Grimms Fairytales – a character learns a lesson the hard way. “Do what your Mother says” – Melissa doesn’t. “Don’t mess around with things you don’t know about,” “Looks can be deceiving,” etc. I also cast a young actress who had a kind of humorous brat like quality to her – so we would be able to stomach her demise that little bit easier!

No, in the sense that she is just a curious child who innocently follows a faerie. But that’s also the point in a way. The best deaths in horrors, certainly the most shocking ones, happen to characters who don’t truly deserve it.

Many thanks to Ciaran Foy for taking the time to answer my questions. Watch for his upcoming film, The Shee, in the near future.

*Full disclosure: I have a soft spot for this film. Then again, I also have a soft spot for Godzilla Vs. Megalon, so take that under advisement.


Bill Bodden said...

Hey Alex,

Thanks for posting the link to this wonderful short film. Thanks too to the filmmakers who deserve a great deal of credit and thanks for their efforts.

Bill Bodden

Erica Hayes said...

What a lovely film, and a great interview. I did like the dry-leaf/stick-insect look to the fairies.

widnesian said...

The faeries recalled to mind the ones in Photographing Fairies, a fine and hard to find little feature that is.

JKB said...

This is a fantastic link! Exactlyhow I'd always thought faeries would really be. Fantastic!

Great post and interview as well, Alex!!

black_magdalene said...

Have you ever seen the "Dr. Who" spin-off, "Torchwood", or more specifically the episode called "Small Worlds"? The Fae are deftly and accurately portrayed there too. See IMDB or Wikipedia for details.