I recently got the opportunity to ask director Sean Garland (BANSHEE BLACKTOP, AN IRISH GHOST STORY  and NOKOTAHEART ) a few questions about his filmmaking career. He also generously shares some Halloween streaming recommendations for FilmStruck subscribers that should appeal to discerning horror enthusiasts.
FILMSTRUCK (KIMBERLY LINDBERGS): Could you tell readers a little bit about your background and how you become interested in filmmaking?
SEAN JAMES GARLAND: Well I grew up in a predominantly working-class North Dublin household where there was always a stream of activity. Three Irish sisters and three Irish brothers in the one relatively small suburban house. My Ma had a quiet, encyclopedic knowledge of old movies and Dad squirrelled us away in the dark of a Dublin cinema as often as possible to keep us preoccupied. I was the youngest, so I got to see a lot of films beyond my years. John Guillerman’s 1976 remake of KING KONG always comes to mind. I recall seeing it vividly in the cinema, with John Barry’s score washing over me, but I must have been only 4 or 5. The Christian Brothers school I attended (until I was 12) would often have a pop-up cinema on Fridays but they’d project the most random and irreverent films. One week it’d be Herbie Goes Bananas followed by Philip Kaufman’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. Another week THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT followed by John Badham’s 1979 version of DRACULA. I was pretty young but old enough to decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life after sitting up and watching Jaws with my Da one night on Irish TV.
I painted a fair bit back then, wrote short stories and always had a book in my hand. Two books, in particular, set me on a path in my teens. Michael Pye’s and Linda Myles’s The Movie Brats and Peter Nicholl’s Fantastic Cinema. It wasn’t enough anymore to immerse myself in other people’s movies, so I started shooting my own short ‘stories’ on my sister’s video camera, which she brought home from London. It was the Ark of the Covenant to me and Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan had shown the world you could be Irish and make great, impactful films for an international audience. Times were changing so after leaving college after my first year (finding ‘film studies’ too generic and unadventurous to ever be exciting) I came into contact with Jim Sheridan by sheer happenstance and somehow convinced him to give me a break. I got a job as a production assistant on IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER and, after a long stint traveling in the States and living in Los Angeles, I finally elected to make my first short film, THE MAJESTY OF THE HAUNT. We shot it on Super 16mm in County Wicklow for a pittance, a stone’s throw from where John Boorman’s shot EXCALIBUR.
FS: Who are some of the filmmakers that inspired you to start making your own movies
SJG: When I was younger the filmmakers that inspired me where chiefly within the pages of those two books (The Movie Brats & Fantastic Cinema). It was the Spielbergs, Carpenters and Cronenberg’s, the Hal Ashbys and Terrence Malick’s of the world that made me pursue a career as a director but as I got older my tastes diversified. Pretty soon I was watching everything I could get my hands on. Ken Russell, Polanski, Roeg, Parker, Tarkovsky, Shlesinger, Michael Mann, Ridley Scott, Lumet, Leone, all the greats. I fell willingly down the rabbit hole let’s just say. I mean I loved David Lean, but I also overdosed on Romero, that kind of thing. That sense of discovery never really ends, don’t you think? Watching movies is still the best film school money can buy. One is always going to stumble upon a film or a particular filmmaker that slipped your net then resets your palette. It’s healthy. It keeps one intrigued and humble.
Images from BANSHEE BLACKTOP, AN IRISH GHOST STORY
FS: I absolutely agree. That sense of discovery and the desire to share my findings with others is what inspired me to start writing about cinema. Before you began making films you worked with other Irish filmmakers including Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan as a production assistant. What was that experience like?
SJG: I worked with Jim on IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER but never have the pleasure of working alongside Neil. My work on INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE included pre-production just weeks before the bulk of the shoot in New Orleans. It was a straightforward gig really. I was to assist a handful of stuntmen who were rigging up Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt for the vampire flight sequences, which sadly never made the cut. I was just 20, fairly green and newly arrived in LA. I was happy to get a job and never dreamed I’d be working alongside names like that months after rocking up in LA. But what made the experience even more surreal and memorable for me was that it all took place at Stan Winston’s Studios. I’d gushingly arrive at least an hour before the crew in the morning and roam the workshops, chat to the staff and hang out in Stan’s display room where he kept his creations. I remember him being a very jovial, approachable man. As for the experience of working with Jim (Sheridan), I remember the first few weeks being something of a baptism of fire if I’m honest. Not because of Jim but because I was the new kid on the block, young and impressionable but I soon toughened up and started to enjoy it. Jim was unerringly gracious though I probably drove him up the wall requesting to see the rushes and stand alongside the camera. He worked with cast and crew entirely without ego and that stuck with me for years.
FS: I haven’t had a chance to see your first film (ABBOT’S APPROACH) but I believe it takes place in Ireland as does your most recent film, BANSHEE BLACKTOP: AN IRISH GHOST STORY. The later film features some stunning location photography and incorporates elements of Irish mythology and folktales. How has your background and upbringing influenced your work and do you plan to make any more movies set in Ireland?
SJG: Anybody who’s grown up in Ireland feels an intuitive vein of storytelling in their heritage. It’s in the conversational tone of the people, the music you hear and the landscape that’s never too far from the city. You feel more Irish abroad because, until you leave, you don’t realize you carry all that inside you on some instinctive level. So I’ve always returned to Ireland between other projects to make films and always will. BANSHEE BLACKTOP: AN IRISH GHOST STORY was an opportunity to indulge that connection with a lifelong love of slow-burn, atmosphere-laden ghost stories. BANSHEE BLACKTOP was always going to feel oblique and unsettling. It was never going to please the gorehounds or those who like their horror fare readymade and jump-scared. It was non-horror films that served as inspiration while I was shooting. NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, WALKABOUT, PICNIC AT HANGING.
FS: We seem to be in the middle of a folk horror resurgence and I hope fans of the genre will seek out your work. In the 1970s, folk horror was everywhere but interest in supernatural films that incorporated mythology and old legends seemed to wane. Why do you think there is so much recent interest in the genre? Are these stories just part of our collective DNA or has something else encouraged the current folk horror revival?
SJG: There’s certainly a fresh unearthing for sure. Funny to see horror paperbacks repackaged as ‘crime’ these days to make them more palatable for mainstream readers but at least there’s a revival of the ‘New Weird’. Some wonderful new writers out there today. Laird Barron, John Langan, Michael Wehunt, Nathan Ballingrud, plenty more. We’re slam-dunk in a New Age of Discord I suppose, there’s real uncertainty, so perhaps that’s why we’re running for the hills again and digging our heels in that wet and bloody folk horror soil. I know for my part at least I was determined to keep our poster for BANSHEE BLACKTOP: AN IRISH GHOST STORY simple and indirectly unsettling. The sales agents and U.S. distributors weren’t amused, but I think, partially at least, I won out in the end.
FS: FilmStruck in association with Criterion has a wide variety of horror film available to stream this month in anticipation of Halloween including some films that could fall under the folk horror banner such the Val Lewton’s classic ISLE OF THE DEAD (‘43) and the Japanese film KURONEKO (‘68). What are some of the horror films currently on FilmStruck that you would recommend readers watch this Halloween?
SJG: Well, right out the gate I’d pluck SPIRITS OF THE DEAD (‘68) off the shelf, if only to experience Fellini’s genuinely unforgettable TOBY DAMMIT segment. I think it’s actually my favorite short film. I’d follow that up with ONIBABA (‘64), surely one of the greatest horror films ever made. And then, just to blindside myself I’d treat myself to another queasy viewing of the hugely underrated THE NIGHTCOMERS (‘71), which I didn’t expect to warm to upon my first viewing but was pleasantly…well, blindsided. It’s not THE INNOCENTS (‘61) but it’s a worthy ‘prequel’.
To learn more about Sean and his upcoming projects please visit seanjamesgarland.com
by Kimberly Lindbergs for FilmStruck originally published October 18, 2018