After the release of the short horror film, The Ten Steps, back in 2004, the success of the short was undeniable. It appealed to fans of many, but there was no word yet as to whether or not fans would see the film developed as a feature. In the meantime, writer/director Brendan Muldowney got to work on developing his debut feature, Savage, followed a couple of years later by Love Eternal, and then a couple of years after that with the Irish medieval film, Pilgrimage. Now, the writer/director is back in the horror genre realm with THE CELLAR, which is inspired by what he started in The Ten Steps.
For the upcoming release of THE CELLAR on Shudder, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Sarah Musnicky spoke with writer/director Brendan Muldowney, where they discussed the experimentation he went through in his approach to the film’s story, the realities of how funding can influence location, and how budget constraints ultimately led to the team having to shoot things in single takes.
It’s been some time since the short film, The Ten Steps, was released. Being familiar with the writing process myself, knowing how things are constantly shifting and changing, can you talk about the process of expanding the short into the feature, THE CELLAR?
Brendan Muldowney: In 2007, I tried a version that was an extension of the short film. So, it was just a short film, but longer. [laughs] It’s just filler in it, and that was just because the short had been so successful for us. It had hit such a broad audience from genre fans to children. So, we just wanted to do something with it. But that didn’t work.
And then years went by. We did other films, and then we came back to it again, and I tried a version where it was the prologue. The short film was like the prologue, and a new family moved in. That became a bit of a problem. I tried many versions of that. I had one version, which was all just kids in it. There were no adults, but it was a monster mash-up at the end. It was a mad crazy film, and I thought it was one of the better versions. But again, I was having trouble getting it through financiers, and also the producer thought that version was too expensive.
I went back to a sort of version you have here, but it was still with a prologue. I was going through different mythologies. Irish mythology, Balor the One-Eyed King, and druids and stuff were in this, and it was crazy. But I was having trouble. There were a couple of problems. One was I am trying to make a fun horror movie. We all know that there’s a certain sort of liberty or laziness, maybe with characters with that [genre], but of course, I wasn’t being led away with that. So, I realized that I was going to have to nail this with a strong character hook. One of the things that became obvious to me was that if I continued on from when the daughter goes missing, what I’ve got there is a mother who desperately wants to find her daughter, especially if she feels guilty. So, that was a brilliant character hook that sort of allowed me to move through that sort of process.
I also was finding it hard to send a lot of the other characters I was working with to help [in the story] because they were innocent, you know? In a way, once I made her an advertising executive who’s exploiting vulnerable people and their vulnerabilities to sell things, it also made it a lot easier to have the structure that [I wanted], because I knew the ending I wanted as well. So, it made it a lot easier.
That’s such a relatable boat as a writer. Knowing what the ending is, and then navigating to reach that final destination.
Brendan Muldowney: Yeah, I find it easier when I know the ending. I think that’s a really nice way to be writing towards something.
We have alternate dimensions. We have the demonization of math, which the subject probably didn’t need more help in that department. There are other things to mention as well but might get into spoiler territory. How did you go about juggling those different elements? There are a lot of little different pieces having their own moments to shine in this.
Brendan Muldowney: Look, I’ve got to be honest and say that it’s hokum. It’s nonsense, really, but yet when you’re working within that sort of hokum for fun to leave clues and detectors, you’ve got to have something going on. So, where did I work? I mean, it’s sort of all in the film. As I said to you, I had different mythologies. But, first of all, I went okay, it has to be mathematically based. So it has to have some mathematical basis. And the first thing I started with was I just Googled like maths, and evil or something like this and abstract evil numbers. And I thought, Okay, this is good. And then evil numbers turned out to be quite boring.
Then I started going more in a sort of Lovecraftian sort of direction with dimensions, and I was thinking of quantum physics and string theory. Through my research, I realized that Erwin Schrödinger had come to Ireland and lived here and I went, wow, that’s interesting. Also, the Schrodinger’s cat metaphor for her missing daughter, which just seems so perfect. If you think about it, the owner of the house John Featherston, and what he was doing is also trying to find or save his child as well. So, that’s where that all came from.
Because the home is so integral to the story, how did you go about securing the location? Because that’s an actual mansion, correct? It’s not a set?
Brendan Muldowney: Yeah! Sometimes there are not always romantic stories in this. One of our financiers was the WRAP Fund in Ireland, which will fund a film that’s shot in certain counties in the west of Ireland. There were about six or seven of these counties. Basically, Roscommon was the county that hadn’t been used enough and they pointed us towards Roscommon, and that’s when we had to look there. I don’t know how many houses or big stately homes are in Roscommon. It’s under 10. Let’s put it that way. So the scouting didn’t take that long.
I was always looking every time I went to one. I was looking for a long corridor with a door at the end, because that’s what I wanted. I just knew that once you’ve set up what our short film does, which is someone’s disappeared in the cellar, well, even going down in the middle of the night to get a glass of water and looking down at the cellar door is creepy. So, I was looking for a long corridor with a door at the end. And when I walked into that house, I mean, the outside’s brilliant, but I walked in and there was just a beautiful open hallway with a staircase and there was a long hallway that led down to a dining room door and another corridor, which wasn’t perfect. But the production designer was with me and he said, “Look, we can build a fake wall there. We’ll build our cellar door.” We had to build a cellar. Obviously, it’s somewhere else.
The only thing that wasn’t perfect in the house was…most of the action happens when the family are hanging out. I had set that in a big kitchen. Because I just thought it was more logical that a family would sort of hang around the kitchen, especially with a big kitchen with chairs and even with a cell phone. It’s like a big Irish kitchen. And they didn’t have one. Well, they did but because it’s a guest house, it was a big industrial kitchen where it’s still big stainless steel, and you’d expect chefs in it. So I had to change everything to just the sitting room. See, that’s why you never see them eat. [laughs]
To wrap things up, what proved to be the most difficult scene for you to shoot out of everything?
Brendan Muldowney: Let me see…the whole film? [laughs] You’re making a low-budget film in the middle of COVID. And it’s low budget, so you’re under time constraints. If I was to pick one, and I won’t say it was the most difficult but the very end scene in the film, you might just see the focus just going soft for a second on the eyes. But the reason is that was our last night in the house. We had to get out. Everything was been struck the next day and being put back to the way it was. I went half hour overtime. It was a Friday, I think. We couldn’t go any longer and for some of those takes, I was doing one take only. One take and then we’d move on. I mean, that’s just unheard of. Because in the days of film, when we used film, you would never do one take because you could get a hair in the gate. Something could go wrong and you wouldn’t know till a week later or so. But yeah, I would say that one where I was having to do it in one take only. But the upside that I’ll say is, is that the cast rallied around me. They knew the pressure I was under, and they nailed it. One take only each time. So we made it in the end.