Interview: Director Aislinn Clarke for THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY

For the U.S. release of THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY, Shannon had the chance to speak with Aislinn Clarke, the first woman to direct a horror film in Northern Ireland. The film, which is inspired by the infamous true histories of Magdalene Laundries, intertwines possession and demonic entities with the horror that these women faced being confined to these institutions run by sadistic nuns. During their chat, they discussed everything from the hellish history of these laundries to Aislinn’s experience working on her first feature film.

Nightmarish Conjurings: Hello Aislinn, thank you so much for speaking with me today! To start things off can you tell us a little bit about your film THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY and how the film came to be? 

Aislinn Clarke: I was approached by a producer who had an idea for a found-footage film set in an abandoned Magdalene laundry somewhere in Ulster. In his vision, it would have been something like Grave Encounters and shot on GoPros. However, the thought of anyone else doing a horror film about the subject and doing it in a way that was exploitative or misdirected was horrifying – I had to do it and we had to set it during the actual period of the Magdalene laundries and make a film that showed the real human horrors of those places. And we would shoot on film, as much as possible. They went for it!

THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY, then, is like a 60s Maysles Brothers documentary made by two priests investigating a reported miracle in one of these monstrous women’s homes. It’s a gothic metaphor for the atrocious treatment that went on in these places, involving possession, spirits, and Satan.

Nightmarish Conjurings: THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY is your feature film debut; what was your experience like going from directing short films to now a full feature film? What challenges did you face? 

AC: I’d made a number of shorts before, I’ve worked in TV and I’ve done a lot of work in theatre, but nothing completely prepares you for the sheer scale of directing a feature. We were working with a tiny budget, with about 16 days to shoot, in a couple of really old buildings – it was intense. Leading such a large crew, in the middle of winter in draughty houses and mills, on only a couple of hours of sleep, is something that you just have to do, because you, as a director, are the only person who knows what this film is and knows how to get it. You’re shooting on film, so every take counts, it’s precious, you’ve just got to get it. It’s an experience unlike any other, but I love it. Being on set is my favorite place to be.

Nightmarish Conjurings: Your previous short films all fall within the horror/thriller realm. Have you always been a fan of this genre? What made you decide to have the film be found-footage?

AC: As I said earlier, it’s a found-footage film because the producers came to me with that idea, but, yes, all my films are horror films in one way or another. I’ve always been a huge horror fan, since watching films with my dad as a kid. I saw The Exorcist when I was much too young to see it. The same with Ken Russell’s The Devils and all the Hammer Films. These were all obvious influences on THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY – priests, crucifixes, Gothic surroundings. In that way, it was fitting to make a found-footage film, because all of those old Gothic novels are epistolary, written as letters or diaries, writings secretly smuggled out of convents and castles. This allowed us to get that same sort of feel.

Nightmarish Conjurings: I’m a huge fan of religious horror, it’s probably my favorite sub-genre. I know the film borrow true history from Magdalene Laundries and gives quite a unique perspective of how nuns treated others. What sort of research did you do in preparation for this film and were you able to speak with people who had similar experiences to those that were displayed in the film? 

AC: It was a subject I’d known well for years. I worked in television in the past and had done lots of research for shows. About 10 years ago I was working on a potential documentary about laundries in the North and spoke to dozens of women about there time there. These were really important and I wouldn’t have embarked on the film if there wasn’t that sort of grounding. But there were plenty of personal accounts that really influenced the visceral quality of the film. For example, when they were both 13, my mother’s best friend was taken away to one of the laundries, just taken from off the street by a priest in a car. She was literally dragged away, screaming. My dad was a breadman and he delivered to the local laundry and, while he didn’t really know about the violence and cruelty that went on inside, he used to describe it to us; he thought it was just awful for the women inside. It was hot, steamy; they were red-faced and chapped-handed from the work. It was what he thought Hell was like. Lots of people in Ireland, North and South, have stories – personal stories, family stories – about those places and, in the twenty years since the last one closed, it’s been hard to avoid them. I know people who were adopted from the laundries. I had my son when I was 17, the year after the last laundry closed, and I have such affinity for those women, thinking that, only a little earlier in time, I could have been one of them. The church and the state still haven’t made a proper apology or amends for what those women went through – lives wasted, children lost, unnecessary surgical procedures. They’re still awaiting justice.

Nightmarish Conjurings: You’re the first women to direct a horror film in Northern Ireland which is INCREDIBLE! What are your hopes for the future in terms of women filmmakers in and around Ireland?

AC: The Northern Irish film industry has really burgeoned in the last ten or fifteen years. With all the international film and TV shows filming here, we have brilliant professional crews and post-production facilities; we have incredible local actors with film and theatre experience. This is brilliant for all the up-and-coming filmmakers here who have more opportunity and resources now. I’m just looking forward to seeing and hearing more stories, particularly from the women here. Of course, as a horror fan, I’m especially interested in seeing more horror films come. The island of Ireland has produced some great horror films in recent years, but I’m especially interested in seeing more come out of the North: it’s such a peculiar place with a very dark psyche and a troubled past; it’s got plenty of horror stories to tell.

Nightmarish Conjurings: With THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY being released this week, I can only imagine how swamped you must be. Are you working on any projects for the future that you can talk about? 

AC: The reception to the film has been very positive and I’ve already started working with a number of different companies on projects. It’s early day though and I don’t want to say too much. In this business, you can never be sure what will happen next; one day all the pieces fall into place and that’s the thing that’s ready to go. It could be one of the horror projects I’m working on or the crime series that’s in development. Only time will tell.

THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY arrives in select theaters, VOD and via digital platforms in the U.S. on July 13, 2018.

Shannon McGrew
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