During the Overlook Film Festival, Craig had the pleasure of speaking with writer/director Michael Tully about his latest film DON’T LEAVE HOME. During their talk they discussed everything from writing a horror movie without having a set premise to casting family members in roles. Read on to learn more about Mr. Tully and his film.
Nightmarish Conjurings: At one point you mentioned having written multiple drafts of this script, so I’m curious how long it took you to write?
Michael Tully: The problem with this one was that all I knew was it was going to be called DON’T LEAVE HOME and it would be a creepy movie set in Ireland. I had the atmosphere, the title, and the vibe, but I didn’t know what it was about. I never want to do that again. I don’t need to know every step of the way where I’m going and I don’t like to outline really, but this one was just a process of me searching for it. Technically it was about four-ish years to complete. I wasn’t writing every single day on it, but I was writing drafts from the summer of 2013 to the spring of 2017 when we shot the film. At the beginning I was just kind of trying to find what this movie was about, asking, “What is it?” I had versions where there’s a family, I versions that were like the movies we’ve seen a hundred times where in the third act the bad guy gets really bad and there’s a chase scene. I said to myself, “Wait a minute; I’ve watched that four hundred thousand times, why would I want to use my window and my privilege to make that movie and not do something stranger in the third act?” I sort of wanted to go somewhere that maybe these movies haven’t gone before. It took a long time and it wasn’t really fun, but we did get some development money so for a while there I was actually getting a little bit of money to do the writing. That made me feel good as a professional writer. When it came down to it, it wasn’t until about the fifteenth draft that the vanishing painting and the sort of hook of the film came to life. Yeah, I wouldn’t advise writing it that way. For my next thing I’m like, “Let’s not get support for something where I only have the title and don’t know what the rest is about.”
Nightmarish Conjurings: What gave you the idea for the hook of the vanishing painting and the Irish urban legend you touch upon in the movie?
MT: It’s tricky because I’m an American while my dad is from Ireland. I have a passport and I’m first-generation Irish-American, but I would never speak or act Irish. The Irish have such a history of sadness in many many different directions with political movements like the IRA and the strange vanishing of people. There were some instances in the late nineties where a lot of young women went missing in a case that is called the vanishing triangle; which still remains unsolved to this day. There are a lot of things that were in the air when it comes to tragedy, but I didn’t want to make anything too specific to that because I felt could be insulting to the real-life victims. I wanted my story to feel like it was connected to something like the spirit or the soul of Ireland. My producer George Rush sent me information about this haunted eBay painting called The Hands Resist Himwhile I was in Ireland. The picture is two little kids standing in front of a store shop window with this darkness behind the window. Some guy put it on eBay claiming it was haunted and that the hands sometimes come out of the painting. I don’t know if it’s true, but apparently things got real crazy. Anyways, my producer sent me that and I think in a kind of general inspiration way that triggered this sort of story I heard from my dad about a little girl who had gone missing in Ireland which kind of created the sparks. Again it’s trying to make stuff that feels like an original idea. I don’t know what the earthly precedent there is for the premise of this movie, but I also don’t want to make something that’s not connected to reality in any way. When my composer read the script he goes, “Oh, this is a metaphor for making a movie.” In his interpretation Shelley is the agent, the creepy men who show up are the investors, and the creators/artists are just flagellating themselves the whole time. Then actress who played Shelley, Helena Bereen, connected to it in the sense that the vanishing’s in Ireland relating to the IRA and the troubles that have been sort of haunting the country for a long long time. That was my hope, to have some connections to the real world without it being specifically about anything but the characters we were creating
Nightmarish Conjurings: Since you are an American base director how did the casting process work for your cast members based in Ireland?
MT: The first kind of thing you have to look at is that this is a low-budget film. I obviously couldn’t get crazy like Gosford Park (2001) or something with thirty nine different lead roles because that’s just not gonna happen. I tried to write it in a way where it felt containable. We were trying to play the name game a little more for the first year or two and we had interest from some of the people we were gunning for, but the script is just so tricky; especially in the third act. It proved to be a really hard script to get off the ground, but at some point producers just believed in the movie enough, the idea enough, and believed in me as a director. I finally just asked, “Can we just cast the right people here and not be beholden to the annoying name game?” The first Irish suggestion we had actually was David McSavage who plays Padraig the Butler. He’s just kind of a rabble rouser comedian in Ireland so they thought it would be really funny casting that he play the strange, mute character. I reached out to a director I had met at a party at the London film Festival who had directed McSavage in another film because I don’t like working with evil people. I was kind of vetting him in a way. My director friend just said, “He’s crazy, he’s a comedian; so you better wear your directing hat that day.” Then this director friend of mine was the one who said, “I’m not sure if you’re beholden to a particular name, because I know how the industry is, but there’s this actor I worked with named Lalor Roddy who has this magical special gift about him.” When I looked at a picture of Lalor Roddy online it looked just like Alistair Burke if I were to describe the character to someone. Thankfully, when we got the script out to him he responded favorably. As an extension we had another actress early in the game that I had met for a role but things weren’t working out schedule wise for her to be in the movie. Then we struck some luck because Mark, Lalor’s agent, suggested Helena Bereen because she was another client of his and he thought she would be good. Once I met with her and she read the script, I realized that I could not have fathomed anyone being Shelley other than Helena Bereen. It was one of those strange things where it’s a circuitous path to get there, but once we got them I could not have envisioned anyone else in the role. You could tell me that Daniel Day-Lewis or Helen Mirren or the biggest name actor in that group was interested and I would still want to be working with Lalor and Helene at the end of the day
Nightmarish Conjurings: What were the challenges of filming within the 400-year-old estate?
MT: Well we were in Ireland and it was an old house and we were told sometimes, “Yeah, that room we’re not going to go in there because old grandpa lives in there.” We were just kinda like, “Okay,” and didn’t really give it a second thought. There were a few rooms that were kind of off-limits that way. Charlie, the owner, let us go in the rooms anyways. To me ghosts and all that stuff is really just energy and frequencies so I was just worried that there might be a negative energy in those rooms and all the footage we shot would be erased from the hard drive since it was not shot on celluloid. That was my biggest fear. When we were in preproduction and I would go to the second or third floor in the dark or by myself I would get right back downstairs. It wasn’t because I was feeling any sort of presence, it was just that I’m an absolute wimp when it comes to that stuff. My imagination will send me running. The house itself ended up being great and it’s the only way we could have shot an independent film in twenty days in Ireland. We did some location moving with the prologue and with farmhouse for a few days, but the rest of the time we were on the estate. The miraculous thing is that the homeowners, Charlie and Sally, were great to work with. Charlie is actually in the film; he’s one of the creepy men, the one who says, “Moonshine.” Not only did Charlie dress up and help us out by being in the movie, but he actually built the fake rain pipe for a scene where we need rain outside of Melanie’s bedroom. He was running around one day and I looked at him and said, “What are you carrying all that stuff around for?” and he said, “I’m building you your rain pipe.” He just was that nice. Rather than challenges, I think it was mostly benefits because we were in one location that was so rich with history and you can’t fake that stuff. The production values were just higher by shooting there. We were also lucky to have homeowners who were really supportive because that can be a nightmare when the owners are there and they don’t realize how invasive filmmaking actually is. Charlie and Sally have actually been through it before. It ended up working out that all of the things that could’ve gone wrong actually did not; which is kind of a miracle.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Did you start out knowing your visual aesthetic from the beginning or was that something you played with in postproduction?
MT: When it came to the visuals I remember it was about a year ago we were shooting here so my cinematographer Wyatt Garfield came over. He had a movie at SXSW call Porto (2016) that he had been promoting and he came right after that. Anyways, we went to a coffee shop, sat down with a blank sheet of paper, and we were like, “What does this movie look like?” You know, we were just effectively starting from scratch. What Wyatt is great at is that since I watch a lot of stuff I can throw some of influences out there and from those he can kind of turn that into the language that we can use for our film. The other thing you’re beholden to is the budget. I know we all like to say that we’re all Kubrickian maestros who just sort of design shots in our mind and go out to make them come to life. In reality we are sort of at the mercy of the location. Fortunately we were shooting in this place where if I was like, “I really want this to be a high angle above Melanie,” we were able to do that because the ceilings were so high. It was a case where we set up some rules for ourselves, but I also like the idea of breaking rules because I feel like if you stay too consistent it just gets weary. Even if people aren’t used to watching movies all the time they could get a sense that they’re seeing the same thing they’ve seen before. For us it was important to, as much as possible, do actual dollying. We didn’t really do steady cam, but we wanted there to be some kind of movement, like the slower lull that kept moving forward. Even if it felt like it was at a slower pace that movement was something where having the camera on Dolly rails is hard to replicate any other way. That was the sort of thing where I had worked with Wyatt before, on our last film Ping Pong Summer (2014), so being able to give him references like The Night Digger (1971) or Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)then he’s so good at translating what special things in those movies that I’m looking to capture. He can talk lensing and things that I’m aware of, but he’s so much more elevated in that regard. I think a lot of this stuff is about working with good collaborators. I mean, you try to set the tone as a director and give some direction on the mood or atmosphere and then you just sort of let everyone run with that.
Nightmarish Conjurings: In another interview you mentioned that the tone was funnier than this final cut; how hard was it to edit it down to this finished product?
MT: It’s funny because I think that now the humor that I wanted is in there so I don’t think it’s gone; it’s just not laugh out loud. I want a movie to have a little bit of a sense of humor and fun where you can tell the filmmakers are aware of what they’re doing even if it’s about very serious, heavy issues. I see so many movies where I think, “Even if a tree fell on my house and I had to run out with my dog and wife I would probably still crack a joke.” You know, those types of movies that have not one drip of humor. For me the revelation was like seeing how the performance of Shelley right now is to me very bent and funny at times. That was an instance where we found the longer the cut was, the less the humor was there. The fact is, it’s still not to be laugh out loud because it’s not a comedy, but when it was pushing two hours during the assembly stage it was sapped of any humor whatsoever. I do have a strange sense of humor, but the shorter the film got the more the humor started reemerging. It was a weird trip getting it to this point because I was freaking out after the first cut. I kept thinking, “This movie takes itself way too seriously, it doesn’t feel like it’s having any fun, what did we do wrong, I absolutely made the opposite of what I intended to do, and I’m the worst director ever.” Luckily Zach Clark, the editor, is a great director in his own right and he sat down for one week and got about twenty four minutes out of the assembly. With that stuff out, all of a sudden the movie started kind of emerging to be what it was meant to be.
NC: You mentioned earlier that the homeowner was one of the creepy men at the meeting and I couldn’t help but I noticed quite a few familiar looking names in the credits for those roles
MT: Yep. You’re clever, Mr. Man, you’re clever. Yes one of those is my dad and one of those is my uncle. My dad made an even more embarrassing cameo in Ping Pong Summer, my coming-of-age movie set in 1985, where he plays a sunburned man who has his ass in the sink with a bunch of ice cubes. My dad is not an actor; he’s a very conservative, responsible, former state policeman, but he flew over to Ireland and agreed to throw down. He has this little moment in the movie. I didn’t tell Zach, the editor, that he was my father or say, “Feature my dad in the scene,” I just let him sort of run with the footage. The crazy thing is he picked this scene that is actually a close up of my dad cheering and laughing right into the camera; you know kind of breaking the rule and looking directly at the camera. Since Zach picked that out I was like, “Well, if you made that call I’m not going to override that one. I guess we’ll leave old Frank Tully in the featured role here.”
Nightmarish Conjurings: What’s on the horizon for you?
MT: I’m trying to get something going. The problem with this stuff is it’s all really momentum driven. I feel like if in 2014 when I went to Sundance with Ping Pong Summer I had the script for DON’T LEAVE HOME in its final condition, we would have shot it that year. Instead it took me four years. I feel like the older I get, I just don’t have don’t have the luxury of directing an independent feature film every four years; that’s just not cutting it. I don’t have anything definitely hitting the ground running but I am going to head out to LA in a couple weeks and I have a few ideas. I don’t know about the people who make like one movie a year or more, I think that’s a little insane, but a two-year plan sounds responsible to me. My hope is that I’ll be shooting something soon and long term I would love to work in every genre. I feel like when I talked with my composer we were both like, “I don’t know if we’re done with this sort of Gothic not really horror but sort of creepy genre yet.” After the excruciating process of writing this movie and the forty drafts of finding out what it was, I would love to try my hand at an old novel that someone has the rights to. It would have to be something that I think would make a really strong film that I could be an asset to. That would be my hope, actually, is to keep doing original, weird movies, but also maybe take a little step in a direction of doing an adaptation. It would have to be material well within my wheelhouse, because I wouldn’t do it just for a paycheck, but it would be cool to find something that I really believe in and could have fun with.
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