Apocalypse wow: Derry director Stephen Fingleton takes The Survivalist to the Baftas
Derry-born writer/director Stephen Fingleton has earned a Bafta nod for his first feature film The Survivalist, a grim drama set in lawless near future that hits cinemas today. David Roy spoke to Fingleton about the film, the Baftas and his upcoming Hollywood sci-fi project
IT'S a big weekend for writer/director Stephen Fingleton: not only is the Derry-born film-maker's first feature The Survivalist opening at cinemas, he's also in the running to take home a Bafta award for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer category.
A gritty, gripping 'post-event' drama set against a bleak backdrop of societal collapse where "every stranger is the enemy", the film stars west Belfast actor Martin McCann as a self-sufficient survivor who forms an uneasy alliance with a mother and daughter (Olwen Fouere and Mia Goth) seeking shelter at his isolated woodland cabin.
Well stocked with full-frontal nudity and bursts of realistic violence, The Survivalist also keeps dialogue to a bare minimum and has no musical score helping to conduct the emotions of its audience.
What little conversation there is in the film tends to be terse and to the point, helping to stir the story's slow-bubbling pot of simmering, claustrophobic tension.
Not your stereotypical date movie fodder for Valentine's weekend, then. Or is it?
"The Survivalist is actually a perfect date movie because it's very scary," argues Fingleton (32).
"It also encourages safe sex."
That's a jokey reference to one of his film's most uncomfortable sequences, in which a character is forced to contemplate a spot of agonising self-surgery.
It's a typically hard-hitting moment from this Enniskillen-bred, University College London educated writer/director who, having made the Oscar shortlist in 2014 for Best Live Action Short Film with SLR, views his current Bafta nomination as an excellent promotional tool for a debut feature shot in the wilds of Ballymoney for £1m.
"It's brilliant that the ceremony is actually the weekend of the UK and Ireland release," he enthuses, before praising some of the other Best Newcomer nominees he'll be up against on Sunday night.
"I have tremendous respect for Alex Garland and what he's achieved. 28 Days Later was a seminal film for me and brilliantly re-invented what could be done with the zombie genre and contemporary science fiction.
"I was also delighted to be nominated alongside producer Sean McAllister, who I've met at various film festivals, and Debbie Tucker Green is brilliantly talented."
Fingleton is also becoming used to the company of established film legends: he met Robert De Niro when The Survivalist premiered to rave reviews at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York last April and was sitting beside Quentin Tarantino at the recent premiere of The Hateful Eight.
"I came back late from the intermission," admits the Bafta-nominee sheepishly, whose new film went on to cause a similar stir at the Belfast Film Festival, Sitges Film Festival in Catalonia (where Fingleton won the Citizen Kane Award for Best Newcomer), the London Film Festival and the Galway Film Fleadh.
"I've sat through it probably dozens of times with audiences," comments the director, who ensured that The Survivalist got a week of special preview screenings at QFT Belfast prior to going on general release today.
"Because of the lack of dialogue, it gets more or less the same reaction in different countries, which is unusual.
"It uses its limited budget to its advantage: rather than showing the wide scope of collapse across a society, we focus a microscope on three characters – which bigger films could never afford to do.
"We were able to make choices and take chances they couldn't in order to tell a story that's truer.
"One of the producers of The Hunger Games actually told me that he wished they'd seen The Survivalist before they made those movies."
Set in the near future, the film's story is informed by peak oil theory, which predicts that a sharp decline in the production of fossil fuel will have catastrophic consequences for our ever expanding global population.
"The reason I was able to write the film was because I believed in the plausibility of my premise," Fingleton tells me.
"I was able to imagine its scenarios with the vividness of something that felt contemporary to me. I feel that right now, we're on a crest of a wave."
And it seems that the only way is down, and fast: with no cohesive strategy about how to curb population or meet the growing need for alternative energy solutions, peak oil
is a recipe for a disaster that few will be equipped to cope with.
"The message of The Survivalist is that the only thing that can help us is community," offers the film-maker.
"Unfortuntately, that's the one thing we completely lack in a society where the battery acid of neo-liberalism has cut though all the connections between us. We see ourselves as heroes in our own movie where nobody else matters."
Having made a name for himself with such an uncompromising independent feature, Fingleton's next project is set to be a big budget Hollywood sci-fi film "aimed at multiplexes".
"Total Recall for the Julian Assange generation" is his intriguing one-line pitch for the flick which he will once again write and direct: he's also confident that it's possible to combine mass appeal with artistic integrity, citing Paul Verhoeven (RoboCop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers) and Christopher 'Dark Knight trilogy' Nolan as examples.
"As a director, I put myself in the position of someone sitting in the audience who is discerning, who wants something different and has an immediate eye for falsehood, "says Fingleton of his approach to film-making.
"It's not necessarily giving an audience what they want: it's being in a position of authority where you've at once commanded their respect and then taken them to places they never thought they'd be able to go."
The Survivalist certainly pulls off both feats with aplomb. With the Baftas looming and a big budget blockbuster in the offing, I can't help but wonder if one of Northern Ireland's most promising new film-makers has any idea where he might be in 10 years.
"I see myself on a beach in Malibu, wondering where it all went wrong," he smiles.
:: The Survivalist (18) is in cinemas now. Visit Driverfilms.com for details of how to watch it on demand.