After discovering the talents of Lord Dunsany, Randal Plunkett – Irish writer and director of a series of award-winning short films including Walt and Out There and great-grandson of famous fantasy author Edward Plunkett – I had the pleasure of sitting down with Randal in person at Grimmfest 2013 film festival in Manchester.
After the screening of his short horror Out There at the festival, we discussed his movies, his dream shooting locations and his upcoming creature feature, Origami.
What inspired you to get into filmmaking?
I was born with a camera. [grins] Joking aside, I lived in New York, so when I was a kid it was dangerous to go outside. It was the 80’s so people were kidnapping a lot of children and my parents were rather paranoid, so I spent a lot of time locked in my apartment block. There was a really good Indian guy who had loads of films in the video store down the road so we used to rent. My dad would choose one and I would choose the other so he started showing me really good pieces of cinema. What can I say? I really wanted to tell stories. On top of that, we had an incentive going. Rather than me playing videogames, he would pay me for a picture I drew. So after a while, the pictures became comics, the comics became short stories and then, many years later, they became short films.
You co-write your films with your brother Oliver…
Yeah, we’ve definitely come up with a lot of the concepts together. He’s a very twisted individual. We have a good parley system going. We bounce the ideas. He’s very good at telling me “no”. “It’s crap!” “It’s dated!” “We need atmosphere!” He’s very good at just being blunt and making things a little bit easy ‘cos I try and overcomplicate things. He just brings me back to Earth.
Do you take on a particular role, like the scriptwriting?
What normally happens is we wait until 3 o’clock in the morning after watching atrocious B-movies and we sit down and drink tea or whatever, and then we start talking about movies that we like and movies that we really hate, and why we hate those movies. Then we decide what we should make. That’s exactly what happened with ‘Out There’. We were bitching about zombie movies. We had just watched a really terrible zombie movie that had no atmosphere or anything, and we said “you know, there’s very few good, atmospheric zombie films”. That’s what I really like in films. It’s feeling that “wow, they’re in a post-apocalyptic land”. There’s so few films that can capture that, that don’t let it down with some terrible acting or some really mediocre special effects. That’s one of the things I like most about ’28 Days Later’ or ‘Dawn of the Dead’. It’s that kind of complete emptiness.
We started talking about it and that it would be good to try and make a film that we actually thought would be the kind of film we’d want to go and see on a Friday night. That’s how we come up with our ideas, and that was the same with ‘Walt’. We kind of liked the idea of a sort of fairytale. We liked the idea of cannibals. We all loved ‘Silence of the Lambs’ and stuff. We liked the idea of tricking people as well. In my other films, there’s always a slight slip of hand where I like to show one kind of film and half way through, change it up. It’s kind of a thing I’ve done in every film, I think. They did it in ‘From Dusk Til Dawn’ and, for me, that had such an impact when I saw that. I was completely knocked back in the second act when they turned into vampires. I thought that was one of the coolest intros to a film. Since then, I’ve been doing it.
Like Walt, as you say, starts off with one tale and completely changes tone. I never expected that.
Exactly, and the thing is, I push it pretty hard. It’s almost like a Disney movie, like a coming of age film. You almost expect him to high five half way through or throw the kid up and down, and suddenly he’s put him in a cage and he’s going to eat him.
The thing is, I try to be sensitive with it as well as the same time, not trying to get too grotesque. I thought that it wouldn’t really need that kind of thing. Not that it would be too bad him actually eating the kid but I don’t think it was necessary at that point. What I said was done. What I did was said.
Locations play a big part in your films. I know it was shot on your estate…
Yeah, it definitely helped a lot. One of the things that I’m really interested in is beautiful stuff and things that are in the light, and the sort of hidden dangers underneath. Most films I see nowadays like the grit alot and are shot in dark little rooms or small urban areas. There are so many beautiful things, in Ireland particularly, that don’t really get taken advantage of, like natural scenery. So we try and shoot as much as that outside and I don’t have to light anything. For me, that’s one of the things I try and do a lot of in the films. All the films are much the same. They all capture this kind of wild country and deserted place which I think is really creepy.
I know when I watched them, I thought “how beautiful!” “how stunning!” I could have watched the visuals all day. Then you’ve got these horrific things just happening in the background of beauty… It’s quite a contrast and ironic, in a sense. Will you continue to shoot on your estate?
You got to play to your strengths. I mean, if I was a better writer, I’d be writing all day. What I’ve got is a nice backgarden, so I definitely use whatever I have. That’s the thing with indie filmmakers. They’ve got to use whatever they can. If their step-mother has a spare bedroom, use it, you know. If you have a garden, use it. You have to take advantage of what you have around you and that’s what I think makes a good filmmaker, someone who can just sum it up and make the most of anything that they have around them and cheaply.
It’s become your trademark, for me. A Randal Plunkett film has gorgeous scenery…
Yeah, and there’s always going to be something wrong with it. I’m getting a little predictable. I’ll have to change it up soon.
How did the concept come together for Walt?
Like I said, I was really into fairytales. I did my English degree on fairytale literature, so I always liked the concept of modern day fairytales. I liked the idea of people from different places being lost in places, like Ireland. So we had two outcasts – an American particularly. You don’t normally see an old American in Ireland. So I wanted the two characters to be isolated in their own ways. Of course, later on you realise why. I really wanted to capture that. The thing is, I had to bring it to a dark place. I was reading Hansel and Gretel and I thought “I’d love to do something, like a modern day version of Hansel and Gretel”, with my own kind of stamp to it. That’s kind of how we got it. We went through a few different routes. There was a lot more nastiness and then we kinda softened it.
If you could shoot in any location in the world, where would it be?
Yeah. One of the things I’m try to do now is put money aside to go visit really strange places that are in the cold. I really like isolation so going to the northern part of Alaska and having night 24 hours a day would be my perfect dream. I’m trying to find quiet places where I can go that are probably a little bit dangerous as well, ‘cos that’s what I really want in my films. I try to capture that. The problem with Ireland is that you drive an hour in any direction and you’ll find people. Actually, if you drive for 5 minutes in any direction, you’ll find people. So I try and fake it a little bit to make it seem bigger than it actually is. It is actually not that dangerous, where if I go to somewhere like Greenland, there really is no-one around at all. I can kinda get into my mind a bit, you know. That’s the thing with all the films. I try to find that place. I find it in nature, a place where humanity hasn’t touched yet. That’s what I’ve always tried to see in my films, in my own way.
Will you continue in the horror genre or will you move into science-fiction?
Science-fiction is definitely on the list. I like the kind of hybrids, so probably science-fiction horror would be another good place for me.
I like the horror genre, and I’d definitely like to stay doing it because I think there is a space for me here. I would do other stuff, it’s just, at the moment, the way my mind works and the things that are happening in my life, horror just comes easy. I’d love to do sci-fi and I’d love to start mixing in a bit of fantasy as well, as that’s another genre I like. I like to keep it very genre, as a whole. People say to me, “do you not think it’s a bit limiting?”. I just say that if I had to spend the rest of my life making monster movies, I’d be pretty happy. I watch these movies that I’ve grown up on. I keep watching them no matter how bad they get or whatever, I’ll just keep going. I love watching horror movies, even the generic ones, the slashers and all that sorta stuff. I spend ages on eBay looking for random films I haven’t seen from unknown directors from all around the world. It’s very hard to sort of turn your back on that and do something else.
I believe you’re doing a creature feature?
Yeah, it’s looking good. It’s called Origami and it’s a road movie mixed with a creature feature, mixed with a bit of Ghost Dog. It’s a cross between Japanese and Irish in a post-apocalyptic culture. That’s a mess! That’s going to be a 2 hour mess! So watch this space.
Much the same, like I said earlier in our Q+A, ‘Out There’ was kinda like a sketch. I kind of had a few ideas of colours and things I wanted to do, based on that. I know what I don’t want to do. I’m keeping that kind of feel, that atmospheric build-up because that’s what I really like in films. I think there’s a few people like me, so somebody will go and see it.
Will you continue to make shorts as well?
No, I think I’m done now with shorts. I’ve done everything I wanted to do in shorts and for me now, it’s really about knocking out the features and getting it out there. The shorts were really good for me to first learn a bit of the trade, but also because I hadn’t quite developed the skills to write full features. Writing full features is very different from shorts. You can make a very good short based on one or two ideas. With a feature, it’s very, very hard because you have to touch so many different things and keep the structure. I’ve been practicing my writing the last few years and I think now it’s time to aspire to move to the next stage which is feature films.
Thank you very much Randal for your time.