The Hole in the Ground premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and opened theatrically and on VOD in several markets in February and March. It has yet to make its way to most of continental Europe, but director Lee Cronin kindly accepted to answer a few questions. You can read our spoiler-free review of the film here.
Film Exposure: How did the promotional campaign go?
Lee Cronin: It’s been very, very busy. It’s been quite intense, more intense than I think I was prepared for. Yesterday [Editor’s note: March 4th] was my first normal day since mid-January. I’ve had a few regular working days, but it’s been more like one here and there, which doesn’t let you get a lot done. So since yesterday, I’m back to writing and back to normal. It’s been intense but I guess for positive reasons. I hope so anyway.
FE: In the beginning of The Hole in the Ground, Sarah and Christopher are seen leaving an amusement park, and it looks like they’re leaving a ghost train ride. Your previous work was the short film Ghost Train, in which a child vanishes inside of the abandoned ride, and re-emerges later, except he’s not the same. In that film, the amusement park looked like it was part of the landscape. As supernatural and eerie as it looked, it felt like it belonged there, and the humans are trespassing on something they don’t understand. And it’s kind of the same feeling with the sinkhole in The Hole in the Ground. In both cases, humans confront an anomaly of the landscape, get sucked into it, and are changed by it. Is this something that speaks to you, or that you find scary or disturbing in and of itself?
LC: That’s probably one of the most interesting questions I’ve had in the last 6 weeks. I think it does. What I can say is I’m attracted to objects. I’m attracted to unusual objects that exist in the centre of a story that then, things can move around. I do think the natural world presents some kind of terrifying things that we don’t quite understand. So, I am definitely drawn to that type of things. I’d never really thought of the ghost train as part of the landscape, but as you said it, I suppose it does, it feels very aged and part of the universe that it’s in, and in a way, it’s also a portal for change. What it boils down to for me, is this: I’m intrigued and terrified in equal measure by life-altering moments, which can be driven by a decision that you make for instance. I’ll give you an example: in The Hole in the Ground, if Sarah just stamps on that spider in the house, then they don’t go out that day, they don’t find the sinkhole and maybe none of it happens. It’s such a simple decision to make. In Ghost Train, it’s the same, you know: “will we go to the beach, or to this other thing that I’ve heard about?”. So, they make a choice. That scares me.
This links back to how the idea for The Hole in the Ground came about, which was a news article I read about a man in Florida who was watching TV, and a small sinkhole opened up in his sitting room and he fell through the floor and died. They couldn’t recover him. And again, I was like “what if he had just decided to go for a piss at that time”, you know? Or if he had a headache and wanted to lie down on the sofa? The real-world equivalent is if you leave the house 5 minutes early and get hit by a bus as a result. The unnatural versions of those really kinda get under my skin so when I read that story about the man in his sitting room, I was like “this is real, but also dreadfully unbelievable”. So yeah, I am drawn to these kinds of objects that exist within the world. My next project is called Box of Bones and is about a box of bones! I’m using these objects to challenge and change people’s world and perspective a little.
FE: The forest and nature in general play an important part in Irish horror cinema. The forest can make people go crazy, like in Lorcan Finnegan’s Without Name, or a decade ago in Shrooms, or a couple of years back in The Hallow, Wake Wood, From the Dark, and so on and so forth. All of these films are set in a rural setting, in the forest or on the edge of it, which brings about supernatural elements. Do you think this setting is particularly powerful for stories set in Ireland? Does it stimulate the re-emergence of something ancient or pagan?
LC: You know, I think it could, you could look at it from that perspective. Obviously, there are lots of horror stories and thrillers globally that are set in isolated and dark places, but I think what’s most interesting at the moment with Irish horror filmmaking in that space is that there is a resurgence delving into that dark and mysterious past. When you look back, Ireland was a country that was once covered in forests and these kinds of more mysterious places, and it’s all been peeled back and peeled away as the country developed. It’s not necessarily that there is a particular reason, but I do find it interesting that we’re all drawn to it. I suppose you could say that it’s part of what could make Ireland unique in how you present it to the world. There’s a school of thought that’s like “oh it’s fun time, party time”, but also, we’ve got our ghosts and our ghouls, and those things that lurk in the countryside. Anyone from outside of Ireland, when they think of the Irish countryside they would think of beauty, but also of mystery, that it’s somewhat a mysterious place. So, I think it is a good place to set a story.
FE: Tom Comerford was your cinematographer on Ghost Train and The Hole in the Ground, and he also shot Brendan Muldowney’s Pilgrimage a few years back. All three films have washed out colours, with scales of grey giving the picture an ominous feel. The Hole in the Ground does a great job at showing a different side to the Irish landscape, a darker, more sinister side than what we’re used to seeing. Is that exactly what you wanted to accomplish with Tom?
LC: Yes, it was very intentional. I think we felt that we could execute a control over the Irish landscape to use it in a way that it could be presented as somewhat ominous. And actually, we spoke a lot about wanting to create a sense of isolation in the characters. The landscape was used to create a sense of scale, which is why we have an opening journey. Even in their small moments in the fair ground, there’s no other passers-by, and in the background, you can see the ghost train cart emerging very subtly, except there’s nobody in it. The idea is that the world is kind of empty and it’s just the two of them. So, the landscape creates isolation, but also gives the film an ever so slightly dreamy, fable-like quality. The film is a combination of the fantastic and the real. The circumstances between the mother and the son are very much a set of domestic circumstances: the horror is in the home. You want the world to feel that little bit more off-kilter and kind of off edge.
It’s why when we do briefly engage with other places, like the dinner party that they go to, or when she’s at work, I don’t give you a huge sense of establishment about where they are. It’s just edges of other people. Even during the visits to the doctor, we’re always on the edge of the frame, never really giving a full insight, just to try and visually isolate them. Myself and Tom have worked together for a while and we kind of have a shorthand when it comes to how we want to make the world look, so it’s not something that we have to talk about in great detail. We discussed the colour palette, the types of shots we wanted, and how we wanted to make the forest seem like it had no end, once you’re inside, that it could go on and on. From that standpoint, we always knew where we wanted to place the camera.
FE: When it comes to horror movies, there are usually two types of approaches. Some people prefer cheap thrills and jumpscares, while others atmospheric films and uneasiness. Some films blend both, like Ivan Kavanagh’s The Canal. I felt like The Hole in the Ground really belonged to that second category of atmospheric horror, fostering creepiness and uncertainty rather than pure shock. A times it feels like a Kiyoshi Kurosawa horror film. Is that a statement you would agree with?
LC: Yeah, I’ll take that compliment. Atmosphere and tone is what I would always lead with first. You know what’s really interesting? I’ve been doing press junkets for quite a while, and someone would come into the room and they’ll say, “I really liked your film because it didn’t rely on jumpscares, it was all about atmosphere and tone, and building tension and dread”. So, I’d be like, “Thank you very much, that’s very kind.” The next person would come in and say, “I loved your film because it had quite different jumpscares in it than what I’m used to seeing.” It’s all about perspective. Horror, in my opinion, is about what people want to take from it, what they like. There are jumpier moments in the movie, but they’re not necessarily crafted in the traditional way of building a ton of music in one direction, and then there’s silence for 20 seconds, and we know the jump is coming, but where is it going to come from? What I would say is the intention from the get-go, the most important thing for me with this story was the character, and then the atmosphere, and the dread that I could build. That’s why there’s no prologue that would show this is a horror movie. I use sound to unsettle you over the opening logos on the film, and then we open up on Sarah’s face, and we look at her and think that something is on her mind. I just want to keep tightening the screw on people’s head all the way through and build it with this crescendo. So, put people on edge, keep moving towards the edge of their seat as they watch the movie. That was the idea.
FE: Reflections, perceptions and doubles play an important role in your film. I don’t think it forces the viewer to interpret the story one way or another, but when you were writing it, what themes did you want to incite the audience to think about?
LC: I wanted people to think, at the very core, about their own relationships. When I’m telling a horror story, I’m always looking for the most universal thing I can find. The core idea in The Hole in the Ground is this: put yourself in a situation where somebody that you know, love, trust and recognize suddenly stop seeming like that person. That doesn’t have to apply only to mothers and sons specifically. The example I would always give comes from the realities of domestic situations. The first time you have a blazing argument with somebody that you know quite well, say after a year and a half into the relationship, you don’t recognize that person. The twitch in their eye, the way their voice changes. That to me is really terrifying. So, I was really trying to dig into that. I wanted the audience to think about what it would be like to be in doubt about someone’s identity. Also, I wanted people to think about the circumstances and strengths of single parents in this sort of situation, and the challenges that they face, and how the sinkhole could represent the unknown future. The story has an ‘any time, any place’ feel which I quite like. You can take something from it and have room to interpret.
At my final Q&A, I asked for a show of hands of what people thought: is it just a psychological journey that Sarah has gone on, or is it a monster movie? It’s about a 70-30 split, I won’t say in which direction, but it’s interesting that people are finding room to interpret. And that was intentional. That’s the purpose of the epilogue. Just because you survived a monster in your life doesn’t mean that you don’t still bear the scars and maintain the doubt and have the anguish, and that’s why I leave you with something to think about, because in the real world, you never really fully heal from any of your experiences. Sarah enters the story as a character with scars already. She’ll never shake those, but what she does is she stops running and starts facing the darkness. That idea was really important to me, as we all have to stand up and face the abyss. Giving a lot of interviews during the launch makes you learn about the film that you’ve made. Some people will say, “Oh my god, she moved to a creepy house at the edge of the forest, what a stupid thing to do.” And I’m going, “Well, no. She’s a woman that’s on the run from domestic abuse. She’s trying to get as far away and hide as best she can. She’s not scared of the forest, she’s scared of the man that was beating her up.”
FE: She doesn’t know she’s in a horror movie.
LC: Exactly. And you know, not everybody gets that. There are very intentional decisions on the sound design in the movie. She’s a woman in an anxious state. When you’re in a state of heightened panic, panic attacks can last for a long time, it can be a state of mind. So, I was really trying to get inside her head.
We thank Suzanne Murray of Wildcard Distribution and Glenn Hogarty of Limelight for making this interview possible.