There are many things to love about Aislinn Clarke. She is the very first woman to direct a feature-length horror film from Northern Ireland. She’s a huge Stephen King fan. She’s a lifelong, dedicated horror fanatic and The Devil’s Doorway is her feature directorial debut. The film was picked up by IFC Midnight and is a shining example of how to do a found footage film right. Set in 1960, the film tells the tale of two Catholic priests who are sent to a Magdalene Laundry to investigate a reported miracle. What the priests uncover is more than either one of them could have ever imagined. You can find my full review of the film here.
Aislinn was kind enough to discuss all these things and more with me from her home in Ireland. She will definitely be a director to watch so read on to learn a bit more about this fascinating woman, The Devil’s Doorway, and which Stephen King story she would like to tell.
Rachel Prin for Nightmare On Film Street: Congratulations on your first feature film! The Devil’s Doorway is officially out in the world has been getting a lot of positive words surrounding it. As this is your debut feature film, what has this whole experience been like for you?
Aislinn Clarke: Well, I feel pretty good because it’s done and it’s out there. It’s a long hard process getting a film made and I think going into it you don’t even know how hard it’s going to be. I think it probably is for films that everybody makes and it’s kind of like giving birth to a child, and I have done that. It’s a longer and more difficult thing than you think it’s going to be, but there’s a great sense of achievement when it’s done. Looking back it’s probably the same for most people who are in this line of work you think ‘Oh I would have done this slightly differently’ or ‘I would have done that maybe differently’ but you get to a point where everybody is happy and the film gets out there and then you just kind of have to look forward to the next thing.
NOFS: The film is set in 1960 in a Magdalene Laundry. The juxtaposition of historical fact with the story really worked well together in this film. Why did you feel compelled to integrate this part of history into The Devil’s Doorway?
AC: I’ve been interested in Magdalene Laundries for a long time. I was aware of them even since childhood. My father worked for a bakery and he would deliver bread to the local Magdalene Laundry and I remember him describing it as sort of a version of hell. He said, ‘That’s what hell is like.’ The girls in there sweating, working so hard, they all look so miserable because it’s so hot and steam is running down the walls. So, even since childhood I’d always been interested. I used to make documentaries and that’s what I started doing coming out of University. I was researching for a documentary on Magdalene Laundries and spoke to a number of survivors and people whose mothers had been in Laundries. So, I’d done a bunch of research and for years it’s something that I’ve been very aware of.
Then, quite coincidentally, The Devil’s Doorway started as kind of a one page project that two producer and co-writers had this idea that they wanted to make a horror film that was a very different one. Set in modern day, in an abandoned laundry, found footage, but shot on Go-Pros, so a completely different project. Something more like [REC] or Grave Encounters. They spoke to a couple different directors, but I said, ‘I wouldn’t do it like that at all.’ I think it’s a great idea to do a horror film in a Magdalene Laundry, to make a political or social comment on the situation, but I think found footage is really tired. There’s so much of it and people tend to roll their eyes when they hear found footage and don’t even give it a chance any more. So I said, ‘What if we make it period found footage? Set in 1960, that’s the high point for these places where they were more prolific. That way it’ll have this period aesthetic and it’ll give it a fresh feel and also set it up at the high point of real human drama.’ All good horror has a center of real human drama. They could have said, no that’s not what we want to do, but they came back and said ‘Yeah, that sounds great’ and that’s where it went.
NOFS: The film was partially shot on 16mm film and this choice added a layer of authenticity, believability and an aesthetic that truly added to the overall story. What has been your experience with some of these older techniques and why did you choose to film your film this way?
AC: I’ve worked with film my entire film making life, ever since I went to film school. The film school I went to was really mostly academic, which was incredibly useful actually in terms of learning the language of cinema and stuff like that, but it wasn’t very practical. But I was making films myself, on an old Super 8 camera that I had so I made a lot of 8mm films. I’ve been editing my own 8mm films for years and doing it in the old-fashioned tactile way. Then, myself and the DP, together we had made some 35mm shorts, so we were both pretty experienced working with film and it seemed like the natural choice. I think if you’ve worked with film as much as we have, you can really see the difference, and I think it really shows in this film and people really accept it.
We had to convince the producers that it was worthwhile. Obviously they’re going to be a bit nervous about spending money on film when you can do things digitally, but we really really felt that we couldn’t just put a filter on it and expect it to sell. Even people who don’t know much about the difference between the two mediums can tell. It just feels more real when you look at it. So, we did screen tests on film and screen tests digitally and they agreed that it was enough of a difference to be worthwhile. We compromised and agreed that anything that needed SFX we would shoot digitally so that we’d have more room in post production to manipulate that. For me, it was the natural thing to do. If you’re making a found footage film set in 1960, they would have shot it on 16mm. To really sell the aesthetic, which is such a big part of found footage, and giving it a sense of being a real document, we had to go that extra mile.
“All good horror has a center of real human drama.”
NOFS: Along the same lines, the buildings were truly beautiful and haunting. Where was the film shot and how did you come across these locations?
AC: Well, we had our art designer, John Leslie, who is fantastic. I think he knows every nook and cranny of Ireland and these were places that I’d never been to before, but he had. There were two main locations that we used. One of them was an old house that had belonged to Lord Craig Abbot that hadn’t been lived in since the 1930’s, and had then been a hospital during the war for soldiers. I think it has been used for shooting other things in the past. Part of it was used for World War Z, and then we used this disused linen mill in the middle of the country side. That worked for the laundry because it had a lot of the same equipment that you would need for big sheets of material and it had been used for The Frankenstein Chronicles and the TV show Penny Dreadful. So John, is really excellent. He was able to pull them off the top of his head, and they were just the right kind of feel and tone for us.
NOFS: As this is a found footage film, a score is a delicate thing and I thought the music was really beautiful, minimal and well executed. What was your approach to sound design and more specifically in regards to the film’s score?
AC: I’ve done a lot of sound work; audio theater, sound installations, and things like that in my theater work, so it’s an area that I’m pretty familiar with. I think, well I know, that I would have chosen to not have a score in the film at all cause I felt like it would have felt more like an authentic document. And I wanted to use more of the diegetic sounds of the place; girls in the place singing (which we have a little bit at the end), and sounds and music that would be organic in that place. While I think the music is great, Andrew McAllister who did the score is fantastic, but from the beginning I just would have preferred to not have a score. I would have wanted a lot more space, sound of wind, creaking, thunderstorms outside, but everything is a compromise and the producers were really keen to have a score. So, I worked with Andrew and the score that he wrote was, as much as possible, has a tone of things that would be diegetic. We tried to keep it to instruments that you might find in a convent and a lot of female voices. We got a bunch of singers into a studio for a day to do some satanic chanting, and some mild abandon singing. That wasn’t really scored as much as it was just felt, and we used that in various parts of the score. They did something similar in The Witch I think. As much as possible we tried to give it the texture of belonging rather than being external to film.
“It’s about the real evil things that people do in the real world. And that’s the moment in the film that’s not a documentary, but it could be. Girls were brutalized.”
NOFS: There’s one scene involving Kathleen that stuck with me long after the film was over, and also I think, speaks to some other shots throughout the film. There’s a lot of lead up to the culmination of her pregnancy and when she finally does give birth the focus is all on her face. What you see is a terrified, pained woman, but what you don’t see and what you hear is more terrifying. Reminded me a lot of Rosemary’s Baby in that way. Why did you choose to approach this important scene in such a way? And can you speak a little bit on the idea that sometimes showing less is more in horror?
AC: That’s my favorite film in the scene actually. I think Lauren (Coe) did a really great job performing that and we shot it for quite a long time. It was really kind of exhausting and physically demanding and as an actress she did an amazing job. For me, from the very beginning, it was one of the first things that I envisioned for the film. That’s sort of the crux, and for me is the worst part of the film because women did have brutal births and that really happened. So while you might find other moments in the film to be really scary, they’re supernatural and they’re not really real. This cut feels like it is really real. The reason that I chose to just stay on her face is because I think the audience is used to seeing. And in a way it’s distancing. They’re used to seeing and can kind of tune out and it can become a passive thing. Where if you show them things they’re not used to seeing, their mind has to search it out. It’s more of an active process and that makes it more horrifying. Your mind can horrify you more than I ever can.
There’s something about the close up that forces you to empathize. And as it goes on, uncomfortably long, it’s even better. That is different to being scared. It’s different to being entertained. It’s more of an active process and for me that’s what the heart of the film is about. It’s about the real evil things that people do in the real world. And that’s the moment in the film that’s not a documentary, but it could be. Girls were brutalized. And right up to my mother’s generation and beyond, women had symphysiotomies that left them disabled for life. And that’s not even in laundries, in Ireland, that’s a Catholic State issue. It has to do with caesarean sections being basically illegal because they reduce the amount of pregnancies you can have. So instead, the pelvic bone ligament was severed and it would never repair. It’s brutal and painful and I really just wanted to express that moment in a way that’s uncompromising. If you show everything, it makes it more passive. I wanted them to really think about it.
NOFS: It’s clear that horror is a genre near and dear to your heart. Who are some other directors that have inspired you or what have been some films that have really had an impact on you and your choice to pursue film making in the genre?
AC: I’ve been a horror fan since I was a little kid. I’m the youngest of four, and my dad was a massive horror fan. Our Friday nights would be all about going to the video store and picking out a scary movie. He would kind of censor them. Anything that was sexual, he’d make me leave the room and then come back in. I saw The Exorcist when I was about 7, but I didn’t see the crucifix scene if you know what I’m talking about, but I saw the head spinning and the pea soup. Like most horror fans I watch everything; good, bad and in between. My favorite horror film is Rosemary’s Baby, probably my favorite film of all time. I love Repulsion as well, Don’t Look Now. Hereditary really messed me up for days. I had such strange nightmares, but I really thought it was great.
NOFS: You are the first woman in Northern Ireland to write and direct a feature-length horror film. How do you view progress of more women being involved in the horror film making process and where do you think the future of women in horror is heading?
AC: That’s an interesting question. I think there’s a lot of really good horror coming from women recently and I think that’s the start of a wave. It’s not going to stop and there’s just going to be more and more. I’m a judge for the Women in Horror Film Festival in Atlanta, and we get such good work in from women that I don’t know and women that I am familiar with. I think, traditionally, there’s been a perception that women don’t like horror movies. There’s just kind of a cultural assumption that they don’t, and part of that is reinforced by movies ironically. We’ve been telling horror stories as long as we’ve been telling stories. It’s a real mechanism for unpacking trauma and thinking about our human experience. I think women have always been a part of that and it’s just in recent years that it’s become more understood and mainstream that it’s something women are really into. And because women are getting more access into making films at all, there’s just more of them making horror films as a result of that. It’s good for every genre to have fresh perspectives and it enriches the scene for everybody. The more variety we have perspectives to, the more material we’re going to get that really makes you think and that resonates.
“I think, traditionally, there’s been a perception that women don’t like horror movies. There’s just kind of a cultural assumption that they don’t, and part of that is reinforced by movies ironically.”
NOFS: I gotta be honest, I read on your Twitter that you are a big Stephen King fan and I’m curious…if you had the option to take your pick of any Stephen King property to adapt into a film, what would you choose and why?
AC: Wow, that is a really good question. I absolutely love Stephen King and I’ve loved him since I was a kid. I actually wrote him a letter when I was about 7 or 8 because I loved him so much, but I didn’t put adequate postage on it so he never would have gotten it. I particularly love his short stories. I feel like the short stories are tonally very different, from each other, and from the novels. There’s a lot of elements that tie them all together. Very often there’s the Castle Rock thing, repeated characters that are very similar, the female leads usually have a similar tone about them which is nice and familiar to return to, but I particularly love the short stories because they’re just very well crafted. I think if I was going to do something I’d love to do an anthology. I know they’re revitalizing Creepshow, that would be the most amazing thing ever to make one of those. I really love The Man in the Black Suit and it’s well thought out world. That I could see expanding and making a feature film. I’ve thought about that a lot actually. The imagery in it is really beautiful.
NOFS: What’s coming up next for you? Are there any projects that you can currently talk about?
AC: I always have a couple of plates spinning. I have several things that have been optioned by production companies. The things that are closest to being made, are a film with Fantastic Films in Dublin, called Rainy Days. It’s kind of a post-apocalyptic story that’s centered around child protagonists and an epidemic of sadness. A terrible grief that sweeps over the land and people waste away from terrible sadness basically. When we enter the story there’s very few people left and the people that are called ‘stragglers.’ They have this communicable sadness but all they want is human contact and closeness. They’re not aggressive or mean to harm anyone but they’re still scary because they bring death. The only people left in our portion of the story are a few kids, two little girls on an island lighthouse and a little boy on the mainland. He’s driving cars until he runs out of fuel and hears a signal from the girls and decides he’s going to go and find them. It’s essentially a hopeful message about humanity and community.
I also have a crime thriller series in the works. I do mostly horror, but when I don’t there’s still a dead body in it somewhere. It’s looking in good shape too, but it’ll be one or the other that I’ll be making next year.