In the late 1800s, a once-peaceful remote country village is under attack—but by who or what, no one knows. Villagers spread rumors of a cursed land, supernatural forces, and even demonic creatures, as the disappearances and killings continue. Pathologist John McBride arrives to investigate the danger, only to discover something much deeper and more sinister than he ever could have imagined.
For the release of Sean Ellis’ THE CURSED, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Shannon McGrew spoke with Alistair Petrie, where they discussed what initially drew him to the character of Seamus, the collaborative relationships he had with writer-director Sean Ellis and his castmates, and what it was like physically fighting a “werewolf.”
Hi Alistair, thank you so much for speaking with me today. Coming on to this project, what interested you most about the character of Seamus?
Alistair Petrie: Well, I’ve never done a sort of a [unintelligible] horror film before, and that to me was inherently exciting because it’s a dynamic and brilliant genre, which has never ever gone out of fashion, which I think is amazing. And nor should it because it’s such a brilliant method of telling stories, and inspiring pretty extreme emotions in people when watching them. I’ve always been a fan. So, to be a part of that genre is amazing.
And also to work with Sean Ellis. I was very excited. Because of his previous work Anthropoid, obviously, which he did, and also a film called Metro Manila, which I was just blown away by. Also, he shoots on film as well rather than digital. He camera operates. He lights. He directs. He writes. So, I was really excited to work with Sean and I’m obviously very familiar with Boyd [Holbrook]’s work and Kelly Reilly. I think she’s a truly great actress. I really do. She’s one of the very, very best. And so, all of those pieces, those elements were all sort of laid out on a desk in front of me, and it was kind of very easy to jump in.
But, in terms of my character, you get an instinctive feeling really. You read sort of two pages and go, “I think I understand who this person might be.” And then you try to peel away as many layers as possible. You have endless discussions about the character, and some of them will be seen in the film and some of them won’t. But, as an actor, you have to try and understand the human being as much as possible. That’s key. The human being rather than the character really. That was my goal to understand him and his motivations.
Speaking of Sean Ellis, how was it working alongside him? Did he help you in terms of approaching the character of Seamus?
Alistair Petrie: Yeah. The great thing about Sean is that he’s very collaborative and despite the fact that if you see on the credit roll how many jobs he does, you sort of think you’re going to be dealing with some terrifying megalomaniac crazy man who will just say, stand there, say it like this, and then go home. But of course, he’s not like that. He’s the total opposite of that. And I think he values collaboration. And that was not unexpected, but it was incredibly welcomed.
So Sean, Kelly, and I would often discuss scenes the night before that we were shooting the next day. And we would go to Sean and say, “We think it’s this and this is how it should feel.” And he trusted his actors and that is always brilliant. It’s a brilliant thing to get from a director-writer. And it’s also really fun having the writer on set and, for some perverse reasons, so many writers are just not there, which I always find completely flummoxing. So when you have a writer/director, it’s always pretty handy.
But the key thing with Sean is his collaborative nature, which immediately excited us and so, you feel as though you’re making a film together. You work with someone rather than work for someone, really. And that’s how it felt.
With werewolf movies, there’s typically an underlying theme of addiction and things of that nature. What I liked so much about this character is, though he’s very focused, he starts to split at the seams the further into the movie we get. What do you think lurks inside of Seamus?
Alistair Petrie: I think he feels the responsibility. The thing that really spoke to me is that he feels absolute responsibility for his community. He’s the head of a community and he feels responsible for that, and obviously, certain decisions that he takes are truly horrific. Let’s face it. But again, it’s about trying to understand the human being. So I felt that was the thing, the responsibility, he feels under pressure as well to sort of ‘protect his community,’ but also, it was the personal too that I really wanted to dive into when I was prepping, and that was the sort of state of his marriage. I was adamant, and I wanted to play this and Kelly was in complete agreement, that this was a couple who they met and they fell in love and they had children. A very human interaction for want of a better word. But, for some reason that we don’t explicitly see, their love has dissipated and they could not find a way to get it back, and I found that an incredibly human and emotional sort of dynamic that is hard to portray on screen in many ways.
But I always had it in the back of my mind, and there’s a rather beautiful beat that we discussed a lot, which was when Kelly’s character is bathing, and Seamus comes in. And we tried to capture in that beat, an embarrassment, a sort of a tragic loss of love. Which, again, even though it’s a horror genre where we’re looking to scare people, we’re also looking to touch people and make people identify with a movie on an emotional level. And you can do some of that, and I’d like to think that we hopefully did because I think it’s a film….Yes, Sean talks about it’s about addiction, but I think it’s about grief. I think it’s about loss and it’s about revenge, so I was gonna say pretty standard emotions, but let’s not go with the revenge factor there. But I think we’ve had a lot of grief and loss in the last two years. Not a lot of revenge, I hope. [laughs] But speaking for me.
There’s a lot of tension between you and Boyd’s character that builds up throughout the film. We really see it come to a head during a very tense dinner scene. How was it working alongside Boyd to execute that pivotal scene?
Alistair Petrie: Yeah, it was good. Again, it’s about collaboration. And so, I remember Kelly, Boyd and I had dinner. We were shooting up in Angoulême in France for a few days to do a specific sequence, and we had dinner and it was quite early on in the shooting. We sort of pieced together various scenes. And I think there’s versions where you stay apart before you shoot that scene. We didn’t do that. But we’re also very respectful. Actors have different processes and I think that when you’re shooting an emotional scene, and there is emotion contained in that scene, you just take a beat, and Kelly, Boyd, and I were very keen to make sure that, even if it’s 30 seconds of silence, it just allows everything to settle, and then you go into it. So, it’s sort of discussed beforehand. But what you don’t want to do is over discuss it because it needs to be instinctual. It needs to be truthful, which is the key thing. I never really say the word real, because, let’s face it, there’s 200 people standing behind the camera. But truthfulness is the key and what you don’t want to do is say before the scene, I’m going to do this, then I’m going to do that and that’s how I’m going to do it. Because it can be so much more exciting, and actors tend to have it planned, obviously, you need to block the scene. You need to know where someone’s gonna be standing.. And then from that, let’s see what we get. So, it was exciting, because I respect Boyd and Kelly so much. I mean, I think Boyd is a terrific actor, and Kelly is just one of the finest actors on the planet, no question. And she’s just phenomenal. So it’s kind of easy to do it when you’re working with such good talents. It really is.
So, your character does come in contact with the werewolf and I won’t go into too much detail for spoiler reasons, but what was it like filming that? I’m assuming it was CGI, so was that a person that you’re fighting up against?
Alistair Petrie: Yeah, it was actually. I guess, as a filmmaker when you’re developing, you want to rely on in-camera effects much more than CGI. Audiences are so incredibly smart and they prefer less knowing about ping pong balls sort of hanging off sticks and stuff. So, yeah, there was. It’s hard to describe. Where there was a human being there was a sort of a makeshift contraption. Which, I was kind of playing off something that was pretty real. I mean, not totally real. Obviously not, but it was a very big human being, an abnormally large human being. And if you can imagine because we shoot on film, the lighting is incredibly eerie. And I didn’t have a good inspection of what this thing was before it came. Well, I won’t go any further but you know what I mean, before my encounter with it.
So, there was a beat after we did obviously the first take and timings had to be adjusted and stuff. I remember in the darkness kind of staring at this human thing going, “Okay, yeah, that’s weird.” It was. The more in-camera, the better because I think audiences are so smart and so savvy. If you can get in-camera effects that scare and you don’t have to rely on CGI then the more the better. Brilliant! And that’s what this version of the movie that we will be going to the theaters was aiming for more in-camera, less CGI.