Like your horror movies to be atmospheric and creepy? Then look no further than Irish director Lee Cronin's 'The Hole in the Ground'. After initially receiving a very limited theatrical release in March 2019, 'The Hole in the Ground' hit streaming services the month after and was quickly being praised as being "one of the most terrifying movies of the year."
Writer Gavin Logan had the opportunity to chat to Lee Cronin about the filmmaking process, how he got where he is today and working with the legendary Sam Raimi
GL: Hi Lee. We can't thank you enough for doing this.
LC: My pleasure, thanks for asking.
GL: What films and/or filmmakers were you a fan of and had a big influence on you growing up ?
LC: 'Jaws', and specifically Ben Gardner’s head popping out of the sunken boat hull was probably my first memory of being scared by a piece of entertainment. I was pretty young when I saw it, and it remains my favourite movie to this day. I was definitely a child of Spielberg, a huge Sam Raimi and 'Evil Dead ' fan, and I saw 'The Shining' when I was really young indeed, like 8 or 9, which led me to seek out more Kubrick. I remember we had 2001 on VHS and the early scenes also scared the crap out of me. I was inspired by lots of different filmmakers, but the above three are probably my tripod.
GL: Was there a particular moment during your childhood when you knew that being in the film industry was what you wanted to do with your life?
LC: I was always hugely into movies and cartoons but never really thought about them from a career point of view until I was about 12 for 13 and a friends mother mentioned how I never stopped talking about them and football. I was an average footballer, but had not yet discovered if I was good or bad at movie making. I think it was around this time I started to write some little shorts.
GL: Before we get into 'The Hole in the Ground', can you talk a little about your short films and how they came about?
LC: Each short film has its own unique journey to the screen. In film school I was more trying to create observational comedy and offbeat mockumentary stuff, but once I stepped back into the real world, my horror and thriller roots started to sprout again. Come to think of it, I don’t think I shot a single frame of horror inside film school. Anyway, I took on a lot of weird and wonderful jobs in various dark corners of the industry which was tough but gave me strong foundations to move forward with my own ideas when the time was right. I met a like minded producer and we funded from our own pockets the first horror short I made called ‘Through the Night’. That turned out quite well and played at a lot of genre festivals around the world. From there we secured finance from the sorely missed Filmbase and made a fantasy adventure short called ‘Billy & Chuck’ which was my love letter to Spielberg. It didn’t quite find an audience which I remember being really disappointing after the success of 'Through the Night'. The next move was right back into horror with the short ‘Ghost Train’. That bust open a lot of doors for us, and then I began the really slow and slippery climb up the greasy pole to try and get a feature film made.
GL: Your first feature film 'The Hole in the Ground' had it's world premiere at Sundance in 2019. That must have been quite an experience. What was going through your head on the day of the premiere? Was it enjoyable or were you freaking out?
LC: The buildup to Sundance was super exciting. We knew about 6 months out that the film had been selected to play in the Midnight section, and then as the time got closer we also learned our world premiere would be in the first Friday night slot at The Egyptian Theatre. This was like striking indie film gold for us. When I got to Park City I was instantly hit down with bad altitude sickness so couldn’t move for like 2 days. I just about crawled out from under my rock in time for the screening, and survived it on whiskey and adrenaline.
GL: Wow that sounds rough.
LC: It was a really unique experience, and we had a packed house and the film went on bang on midnight! I was a basket case of emotion. This moment had been a decade in the making so every twitch or cough in the room sent your heart racing. It was strange afterwards. There was about 15 of us connected to the film, and most of us were pretty emotionally exhausted from the whole journey. The party was short lived, and I decided to go to bed quickly when the twitter judgement started to land within minutes of the screening ending.
GL: So where did the idea for 'The Hole in the Ground' come from? What was the process in writing it and how did the project get off the ground?
LC: It was a slow combination of ideas and a few misfired drafts before we really got it moving the way it needed to. Development is the trickiest part of the process to navigate. Sometimes it can move at a reasonable pace, and sometimes it’s treacle slow. This one was somewhere in between, but there was a drive among myself, my producers and my writing partner to bring this idea to the big screen. We had great support from the then Irish Film Board and managed to find a route to the cinema. There’s a lot of people and voices on these journeys, and everyone played their part.
GL: Seána Kerslake's performance is phenomenal and James Quinn Markey also puts in a fantastic performance as her son Chris. Can you talk about the difficulties (if any) in working with a child under these circumstances, considering the subject matter of the film?
LC: Seána and James were really awesome. They both had very different jobs, and both dove in with total commitment. Specifically working with a child, you just need to be honest with the parents about what you are trying to achieve, and then to navigate with sensitivity around some of the trickiest parts. To be honest, a lot of the time the moments on set are a lot more fun and straightforward for a kid than they appear as horrific when all the bells and whistles are added in post. Eating spaghetti was probably the hardest thing of all for James as he hated it with a passion.
GL: One of the locations I recognised, and I hope I'm right in saying this, was Bray seafront and the carpark area just under Bray Head? A stunning little town on the outskirts of Dublin. What is it like filming on location and how far would you say the Irish Film industry has come since you first got into the industry?
LC: Location shooting is always great, and I loved getting to capture Ireland along with my DP Tom Comerford in a really cinematic way. I think the Irish film industry is truly growing stronger every year. There is much talent out there both in front and behind the camera that are proving their worth on the international stage.
GL: On the surface 'The Hole in the Ground' is about a single mother moving to a new home who, after a walk into the woods, discovers something very frightening about her son. Was there a particular message you wanted to convey with this film?
LC: I’m not a message filmmaker, but I like to have strong thematic weight to my work. I like when people can dig in and form their own opinions on the ideas beneath the surface!
GL: Eagle eyed horror fans might notice a few nods to Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining'. The wallpaper in the house is the same pattern as the famous carpet from The Overlook. Was there any other little Easter eggs in the film?
LC: I’m not even sure the eyes have to be that of an eagle to spot 'The Shining' references. There are definitely quite a few little hidden cap tips to movies that inspired me. I ain’t gonna give them away though, they are there to be discovered.
GL: Being on Netflix obviously helps the film get more eyes on it. Are you happy with the success of the film and do you contribute that to Netflix? Or do you believe that theatrical releases are still the best way to watch films?
LC: I think there are lots of different ways to get your work to audiences now which is a really exciting thing for filmmakers and creators. Personally I still believe in the big screen experience and wherever my work lands I’ll always create it with a dark room packed full of people in mind.
GL: Obviously 'The Hole in the Ground' has now opened a lot of doors for you. Your most recent completed project is '50 States of Fright', a horror anthology produced by legendary Sam Raimi. The trailer just dropped and it looks mad. You directed the segment '13 Steps to Hell'. Can you go into detail about how that initially came about?
LC: '50 States' was a really fun project to jump into. With the episodes being brief, it was a short term commitment so it suited me perfectly as I am busy writing and developing a number of film and TV projects. Sam Raimi had seen 'The Hole in the Ground' at a special screening just after Sundance and we got to meet up. We then started to work on a feature film project together and at the same time as he was getting ready to make 50 States he asked me to direct an episode. Sam is a really trusting and creative producer so I was really pleased to direct something for him.
GL: What were the main differences between working on something like this compared to 'The Hole in the Ground'?
LC: I think what was really different on this was that it’s the first time I’ve directed something I haven’t written. I got to have a lot of input on the final script, but it was a very different feeling coming onto something much later in the process. I also didn’t have any of my usual team on board with me and it was made through the very tight squeeze of a TV schedule. It was a helluva lot of fun to create though and I’m looking forward to people getting eyes on it soon.
GL: Do you know yet if there will be a second season of '50 States of Fright' and if so would that be something you would want to revisit?
LC: I’m sure there will be, as I think people are really gonna enjoy the huge variety the anthology offers. I’m not sure I will be returning as I’m lining up to make my second feature film as soon as possible.
GL: What advice would you give to aspiring screenwriters, filmmakers or else anyone looking to get into the industry, especially for someone living in Ireland?
LC: Gather like minded people, be honest and work your arse off.
GL: We really can't wait to see what you do next Lee. You mentioned a second feature film. What other projects have you got in the pipeline?
LC: I’m developing a couple of horror/thriller projects. I’ll keep the titles under my hat for now!
'The Hole in the Ground' is now available to stream on both Netflix in Ireland & the UK and Amazon Prime Video in the US. '50 States of Fright' is a brand new horror anthology television show exclusive to Quibi.
- Gavin Logan