Interview with Mark Sheridan (Writer/Director of Crone Wood) by David Turpin
Mark Sheridan is the writer and director of the ‘found footage’ horror film Crone Wood, shot independently in Ireland in 2016. Unusually, the film was released around the world before its home country, arriving on our shores this year. Here, Mark talks about the process of making the film, the unique challenges of the ‘found footage’ format, and what he values most in the horror genre.
David Turpin (DT): Unusually, Crone Wood really runs on the performances as much as the concept. Both leads are very appealing – so much so that we’d almost be happy to spend time in their company, even if we didn’t know it was all going to go horribly wrong. Can you talk a little about the casting process?
Mark Sheridan (MS): A film like this hangs on its central performances and Elva Trill and Eddie Murphy really delivered under a very tight shooting schedule. The casting progress was an invaluable part of refining how we were going to shoot the film. When I knew I was going to make a found footage film it was essential to me to be able to maintain that reality by having the actors themselves operate the cameras as often as possible. I didn’t just need actors who could play the roles. I needed actors who could stay in character while operating the camera.
I had auditioned Elva before for another project so I knew that she would excel in this role but for the male lead we had to go through the traditional casting process. It was really interesting watching how each actor incorporated the camera into their scene. Eddie just got what I was looking for. He used the camera to explore Elva’s performance the way our lead character would have. Even when he is behind the camera, operating it, you can feel the character by the camera choices he makes.
From there we took a few days where we went to a local park and improvised a few scenes to allow the actors to get a feel for having the camera part of their performance. Their chemistry was really natural and added so much to the film itself.
DT: The playing is very naturalistic. Sometimes as a viewer, there’s a temptation to chalk that up to improvisation. But at the same time, the story has been very precisely engineered. How tightly written was the script?
MS: I’d say that 80% of the on screen dialogue in Crone Wood came straight off the page and the other 20% came from the actors. I was very conscious in the writing process to keep all the dialogue as ‘real’ as possible. Having written the script myself, I was very comfortable with what each line of dialogue had to achieve so when it came to delivery, we were able to adjust lines so that they fit the actors performance while still maintaining the meaning of it. We all have different ways of speaking and if changing one word makes it more natural for the actor then that’s going to feed into their performance and improve the film.
The main reason this particular subgenre gets a lot of grief is because some filmmakers assume you can improvise everything. The truth is, this just leads to flabby and unfocused scenes that meander. With Crone Wood we wanted a tight 90 minute movie that was always moving forward. While the improvisation may not have been huge on set, it’s impossible to understate the life that the actors brought to the dialogue by making it their own.
DT: “Found footage” is an interesting device, because – on the one hand – it can be very forgiving to budget constrictions, but on the other, there’s nothing more miserable than a bad found footage film (well, maybe a bad musical). Can you talk a little about how you approached the technique, and how you made it work for you?
MS: I think that’s a very fair statement. I think the worst sins of bad found footage are committed when filmmakers figure they can get away with anything because it’s meant to feel ‘raw’. In reality it actually means working a lot harder on the plot structure. Yes you can work with a lower budget but you have two major challenges to face. The first is having to try to justify the use of the camera as much as reasonably possible (without overly drawing attention to it).
Secondly, particularly with horror, you are trying to create suspense and tension without the ability to cut, change camera angle or use music (things that most horror films rely heavily on). It really became a balance of leaning into what the strengths of found footage are and where possible trying to use its limitations to add to the fear, such as things happening off camera that we experience solely through the characters’ reactions.
DT: It’s difficult to discuss the film without getting into spoiler territory, but could you say a little about the folklore that inspired it? How concerned were you with drawing upon real folkloric sources?
MS: I think Ireland has an incredible depth to its folklore and a number of projects I’ve developed have tried to touch on areas of that. I think what’s always connected with me is not so much the ‘how can that happen?’ and more the ‘could this still exist in our world without us knowing it?’ I think that’s a much more exciting angle.
When it comes to classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, characters like Leatherface have become mythical monsters but in reality they were just damaged people in the film. The monstrous and mythic status is created by us the viewer, a way to easier deal with the darkness in our world.
When it comes to this particular folklore, it was a blend of research from a few different sources. I never wanted to root it too much in reality, just enough that it feels possible. I also feel our folklore is full of these wonderfully strong female figures and I wanted to embody some of that in the direction this film takes.
DT: I’d also like to know some of the films that inspired you. Again, it’s possibly tricky to get into this without potential spoilers, but are there some influences that might surprise us?
MS: I think its very fair to describe Crone Wood as a blend of The Blair Witch Project and The Wicker Man. Both films were huge influences on me and elements of both creeped into the script more than I had originally released when I first wrote it. Aside from that, an element of Kill List can be felt in parts of the film. It was definitely a big inspiration to see what Ben Wheatley managed to deliver on such a limited budget (albeit one substantially larger than ours).
I think the other influences would be the other found footage films that I felt respected the subgenre and delivered the characters and thrills to match. Of course, you have Rec and Paranormal Activity, but there are some gems out there like the Bigfoot film Willow Creek. It really squeezes great tension out of its limited premise.
DT: You made this film on your own initiative, which is a huge undertaking. For the ghouls who are reading, do you have any particularly scarring memories of making a feature independently? Or, for that matter, any particularly cherished ones?
MS: I’m deeply proud of what we managed to do with Crone Wood, all the way up to getting it distributed worldwide. I fully believe that the only way to succeed is to be willing to step up and show what you are capable of, with whatever resources are available to you. At the same time, this was the hardest undertaking I’ve ever been part of. It consumed my life for a number of years and very nearly broke me mentally. It’s impossible to express the pressure to try and create something with so little and then how hard it is to actually get it out there so the world can see it.
There were a few low points that’s for certain. Moments in the middle of the night surrounded by cold and tired people where I’ve never felt more alone. But I guess that’s part of the job and it’s about going through that and still keeping the show on the road. I do know that one of the nights walking back to my car I recorded myself talking for a few minutes. I’ve never had the energy to go back and try to find that file. I have no idea what I said but I feel like it fits with the whole found footage approach, an effort to document, to try to make sense of what I was experiencing. As if having it on camera would in some way take it off my shoulders and capture it safely on a memory card.
I’d never undersell how hard it was. But at the same time, I would never tell anyone else not to do it. If you feel you have that determination in your tank and the energy to commit a few years of your life to something like this, then do it. The industry needs fresh voices that are willing to will something into existence, to fight to see their vision on screen. I’ve nothing but the deepest respect for anyone who manages to create a film outside of the system.
DT: Here’s the obligatory “what’s next” question. Do you have any projects coming down the pipeline? And in a perfect world where you could make any film you wished… What would it be? And who, living or dead, would star?
MS: What’s next is a great question. I remember reading an article saying that something like 97% of first time directors never direct again. I have a number of projects that I’m deeply passionate about that I feel would really deliver for the horror audiences. One in particular is 18. It starts with an 8 year old who witnesses a masked man coming out of her closet who kills her parents in front of her. He kneels down and assures her that he would never kill a child, but tells her he will be back for her in ten years. The rest of the film takes place on her 18th birthday and this time she is ready for him.
The kind of horror films I want to make are the ones that provide the thrills and the frights but are also entertaining roller coasters. I feel that lately we tend to skew too far towards either blunt force trauma violence or overly arthouse fare that critics appreciate. I feel the wider audience wants to be pushed to their limits (and maybe a little step beyond) while also having a great time.
I have an amazing 16 month old daughter here at the moment so life choices are a little more complicated than when I made Crone Wood but if I could find the right producer and budget, I’d be back on set in a heartbeat.
DT: And finally, can you recommend any other viewing for those of us trapped in our dungeons?
MS: It’s been a strange time where I’ve found myself skewing towards films I love for comfort more than overly exploring newer films. The back catalogues of Dario Argento and Brian De Palma are always welcome on my screen. As for newer stuff, I’m currently watching the new The Stand miniseries. Very interested to see how they handle the ending.
Crone Wood is now available to rent or buy on iTunes, SkyStore, Amazon Prime, YouTube and Google Store, and is also available on DVD.