Interview with David Turpin – Writer of The Lodgers
The Lodgers opens nationwide on March 9th, 2018.
How did this project come about? Did you write the script on spec or was it after discussions with the production team?
I met with the producers — Ruth Treacy and Julianne Forde at Tailored Films — about something else entirely, to do with a music video. They mentioned that they were looking for a supernatural story — I don’t think it was any more prescriptive than that — and I just got to thinking about it, although I’d actually never written so much as a short film. Remember that scene in Sunset Boulveard, where the writers complain that audiences think the actors make it up as they go along? I wasn’t quite that oblivious to the screenwriting process, but it wasn’t something I’d seriously considered doing myself.
I suppose, like a lot of people, I saw film as being this hazy domain ruled by over-confident people with megaphones. Since that’s pretty much the opposite of who I am, I was surprised and flattered to be asked, and then more so when the Irish Film Board supported the development of the script. Brian O’Malley joined as director after about a year of development, and naturally it became shaped to his interests and his take on the material. I didn’t have a frame of reference at the time, so it’s only now that I understand how fortunate I was in that the development was all very harmonious.
Where did the idea for the story come from? Was it something that was been in your head for many years?
Well, I guess everybody who knows me knows I love a certain species of breathy Gothic melodrama. That’s always been the case — even as a small child, I used to imagine these weird dramas involving strangers who lived in our house after midnight. A lot of the other images in the story — the War of Independence stuff, the ‘phantom limb syndrome’ stuff, the psycho-sexual stuff — they all coalesced around that classical Gothic architecture. As a shorthand, I used to think of it as a meeting point between The Fall of the House of Usher and The Cement Garden.
I have to say that I’ve never been particularly interested in things that go bump in the night, in and of themselves. It’s more that the Gothic gives us a language of metaphor through which we can talk about things that we would normally be unable to discuss. I mean, as an obviously gay person in Catholic boys’ school, I was really drawn to the Gothic for the way that creates a valve for the taboo and the forbidden. As adults, I think many of us have problems with family and with sexuality that we can’t talk about, and we don’t know how to face in literal terms. So we have these coded images of desire and horror, repression and liberation that we use to express those parts of ourselves.
How involved were you in the process after you finished the script? How much time did you spend on site?
I visited the set for a couple of days quite early in the shoot, which was fascinating. You do get a peek behind the curtain. Loftus Hall is a fun place to wander around, too — particularly as there isn’t really anything for a writer to do on location. You don’t see it in the film, but the house is actually perched on this very bleak and fascinating headland, with cliffs of stratified volcanic rock. So you have the historic feeling of the house itself, and then you step outside into something that precedes history itself — something ancient. It’s quite an otherworldly place, definitely worth a visit for anybody travelling in Wexford.
I was also with the film for a long time because I was involved in the music, which is one of the last things that gets done. The bulk of the music was done by Stephen Shannon, who people might know for his work with Halfset, or from his new band Mount Alaska. Stephen did a lot of work with Kevin Murphy, who’s a really interesting cellist, and I kind of hovered around the periphery, helping to put a shape on things.
You have also worked as a film reviewer for many years, did working on this project alter your view on the role of the reviewer?
Not really. I’ve always had a pretty clear sense of what a serious reviewer’s job is and isn’t. A lot of people are under the misapprehension that the job is to be a kind of roving opinion, whose mere tastes have some kind of special significance. And I’m sorry, but that’s not it at all. Your task as a reviewer is to have a base of knowledge in the specific medium you’re dealing with, so that — in the case of film, for instance — you can identify the film’s objective on its own terms, look at its parts and how they function, and place it into dialogue with other related films or texts. That’s really it. I’m not particularly interested in the mere tastes of strangers, and I can’t imagine they’re interested in mine.
At the same time, you can find among filmmakers the idea that critics are there just to needle and undermine them. I think that speaks more of the frail ego of certain filmmakers than it does of the character of good critics. I’ve never known a good critic to write out of malice or spite. If somebody is writing something that needles you, perhaps think about why that is? Does it sting because this person is unqualified to comment? If that’s the case, it shouldn’t get under your skin. If it’s because they’re raising something that’s true, then maybe you should listen. I wish sometimes we could have something more like French cinema culture in the mid-20th century, when there was a productive dialogue between critics and filmmakers that worked both ways. I think that would be more rewarding for everybody.
You wear many hats, with your musical career alongside screenwriting. What’s next for you?
I’m putting finishing touches on a new album, which is going to be out later this year. It’s a complicated thing, because it’s a collaborative record made with about 60 guest contributors. So getting it all pieced together is a challenge. Other than that, it’s all film stuff on the horizon.
Any ideas for a new screenplay? Would it be in the same genre or something totally different?
I’m actually working on three screenplays at the moment. Two are with Tailored, and another is with Kathryn Kennedy, a great producer some people may know for the documentary It’s Not Yet Dark. On each, we’re working with the Irish Film Board. None of them are horror films. Without giving anything away, I’d describe them as a psychodrama, a genetic fantasy and a sexual comedy. But really everything I do is some species of melodrama. I’d like to think that’s my specialty: tastefully kinky melodrama.
Tailored are planning to begin shooting the next film, The Winter Lake, later this year. The director, Phil Sheerin, has made some really striking shorts, and this will be his first feature.
What would your ideal cast for a film be? The actors can be living or dead.
I don’t know. For me, film performance is as much about ‘being’ as it is about ‘acting’ in a theatrical sense. I think Charlotte Vega does that very well in our film, actually. As for this imaginary film, the possibilities are too great. I’m overwhelmed. So I’ll just say Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Bashful, Sleepy, Sneezy and Dopey.