In Ivan Kavanagh’s upcoming horror film, SON, after a group of individuals breaks into Laura’s home (Andi Matichak, 2018’s Halloween) and attempts to steal her eight-year-old son, David (Luke David Bloom, The King of Staten Island), the two of them flee town in search of safety. But soon after the failed kidnapping, David becomes extremely ill, suffering from increasingly sporadic psychosis and convulsions. Following her maternal instincts to save him, Laura commits unspeakable acts to keep him alive but soon, she must decide how far she is willing to go to save her son.
Recently, Nightmarish Conjurings had the opportunity to speak with Irish filmmaker Ivan Kavanagh about his latest horror film, SON. During the chat, he discussed everything from the primal nature surrounding a mother/son bond, the importance of building atmosphere and dread, and much, much more. (The following interview contains spoilers, go forth at your own risk).
Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Ivan. SON deals with everything from folk horror to the extent a mother will go to protect her child. Can you chat a bit about the genesis of the film?
Ivan Kavanagh: It actually started from a very, very personal place well over five years ago now. When my first son, John, was born, he had a really, really difficult birth. Me and my wife were really worried about him. We lost a lot of sleep and it was a really worrying, stressful time. And during that time, I could see how my son and my wife were [forming] that mother/son bond, which is so special and so primal, much different from a father/son bond, especially when they’re babies. I began to think, is there anything a mother wouldn’t do to protect her son? How far would she go to protect them? That was the genesis of it. I wrote down the scripts in-between feeding the baby and the baby crying; it was like therapy for me, in a way. I was able to put all my fears and anxieties into the film, like I do for all my films, really. My fear of being helpless in front of a sick child and not being able to do anything, not being able to comfort him, I was worried about the child’s safety and health, so all those feelings poured into [the] script.
One of my favorite scenes of the film had to do with the appearance of an entity during a ritual that is subtle but incredibly effective. That said, how do you go about crafting a scare?
Ivan Kavanagh: I think for me, it’s all about building atmosphere and dread and earning the scare, you know what I mean? It’s all about taking your time and setting it up and then letting it slowly build. It depends on what’s required of the scene, but for that particular scene…because all the way through the film you should be unsure if Andi’s character, Laura, is insane or sane, is she telling the truth, is this actually happening? Because I constructed the film that way, when we finally get to the scene where she’s conjuring the demon you’re thinking to yourself, is the demon going to actually appear? And then when he doesn’t appear the first few times you’re thinking, she’s obviously crazy. Then when he finally arises, I think that’s why it has such [an] impact because of that build throughout the film where you’re unsure whether it’s real or it’s not real. Even then, after she conjured the demon at the end of that scene, you’re still not sure whether it’s real or not, which I kind of like.
Let’s chat a little bit about the young Luke David Bloom. He gives such a powerful performance in both his acting and the physicality needed for the role. How was it directing him?
Ivan Kavanagh: He was amazing. I spent a lot of time casting all of the roles. I’ve had kids now in pretty prominent roles in my last three films: The Canal, Never Grow Old, and now SON, and the main key to a great performance is the right child at the right casting. I spent a lot of time making sure I’m absolutely 100% sure that this is the right kid. I got to the point with this one, I think we were only two or three weeks away from filming and everyone was getting really worried and was telling me I needed to pick someone, but I couldn’t pick the wrong child. We had some great actors, but not the one I had in my head. None of the kids had the natural talent that I knew would be needed to carry this off because the role requires things that would be even difficult for an adult actor. Then when we got in this self-tape from Luke, it just blew me away. It was just so natural on camera. He was the complete antithesis to the movie kids that I was seeing, it was just incredible. The moment I saw it, I rang the producers and I said: “I found David!” The next day, I drove down to Atlanta to meet Luke and his father. We did some improv and we read some scenes and there was no difference on or off-camera, which is a very rare gift. He just felt natural and so intelligent and so beyond his years.
But also for me, a great help was his father cause Matthew is an actor himself and he’s an acting coach. I was able to say to Matthew, Luke’s father, “I’d like you, not Luke, to watch Cries & Whispers by Ingmar Bergman and look at how the woman in that is dying of cancer and reacting to the pain. Look at the physicality of her body, that’s what I need Luke to do. I need that kind of physicality.” Matthew was then able to work with Luke and show him how it’s done, you know? Then by the time we arrived on set, I just had to tweak the performance and push him a bit further. That was a great help to have a person who understood acting that I was able to give the references to and who could translate them then for Luke’s understanding. The key for a kid, especially in a horror movie, is to just keep it like a game so then they never know they’re in a horror movie, it’s just acting, it’s just a game. We showed Luke how everything is constructed, how all the effects are constructed, so it’s very technical to a kid, you know? Luke had a blast.
Something I noticed early on when watching the movie was there always seemed to be a focus on these dark and foreboding paintings. Was that intentional?
Ivan Kavanagh: Oh yeah, absolutely. The production designer, John Leslie, we went to all of the junk stores around Mississippi and we hand-picked every one of the paintings. I knew each one would suit the mood of each scene, and because I put so much intention and attention to those particular paintings, I just had to show them in the film, so they became like a motif. Practically every room that we’re filming in, especially when something horrible happens, we cut to a painting. It just seemed to be the right thing for the mood. There is a scene in a particular hotel where we cut to a painting by Goya, and I don’t even know what’s happening in the painting. It’s a man, a doctor or something, putting his fingers into a child’s throat and it just seemed like it was harking back to earlier in the film where Laura’s looking in David’s mouth for any signs of what the cult may have done. Then later on, when something horrible happens, I cut to a very innocent-looking painting and it just seemed to offset the violence. I’m glad you noticed that because I paid a lot of attention to what painting was in the scene. Even in certain scenes, there is repeating of paintings as well. In Laura’s house there’s one scene where you actually see a painting of Laura but we obscured her face with all streaking paint, it’s a very unsettling painting, but at the end of the film, you’ll see the same painting in the room where she grew up with her father. We did that very purposely and we put a lot of thought into the production design and every single prop in the film. So everything you see in the film has some sort of significance.
Earlier, I touched upon the folk horror aspect of the film in conjunction with the themes presented. That said, what do you enjoy most about exploring such difficult themes through the use of horror?
Ivan Kavanagh: Horror is tailor-made for exploring difficult themes and I love horror movies that if you want to watch it on a purely visceral and horror movie level, you can, but there’s also hidden meanings there as well. I hope there’s a lot of that in this film as well. In regards to the folk horror, part of that was trying to [unintelligible] the audience so that all this stuff about the cult seems like it’s taken from headlines and conspiracy theories about cults running the world and that’s why it’s so fun. I wanted them to put that in so that the audience wasn’t sure whether Laura was insane or sane. But also, a lot of it came from shooting in Mississippi where I found, coming on from Ireland, it’s really disconcerting because religion is a living, breathing thing to people there and they truly believe in God. And I suppose if you believe in God, you also have to believe in the Devil and demons, and they really do. That sort of imagery, that kind of feel has crept its way into the film as well. So for me, it was just [the] perfect setting for the film in Mississippi as it’s just drenched in atmosphere and decay. It lent itself to the film perfectly.
SON will arrive in theaters and on Digital and On-Demand on March 5, 2021, from RLJE Films.