Arriving exclusively on Netflix this Friday is Ciarán Foy’s Eli, a story centered around a sick little boy (Charlie Shotwell) who suffers from an auto-immune system that makes it impossible for him to exist in the outside world. His parents (Kelly Reilly, Max Martini) take him to stay in a remote facility run by Dr. Horn (Lili Taylor), who promises to cure Eli of what ails him. But Eli begins to suspect there’s more going on than the good Doctor Horn is telling him, and it’s up to him to find a way out before it’s too late.
Of course, there’s quite a bit more to Eli than just some medical shenanigans, but that would ruin the surprises that await viewers this Friday. Suffice to say, if you think you’ve seen a movie like Eli before, just think again.
Recently, Daily Dead had the opportunity to speak with Foy about his latest directorial effort, and he discussed how the project initially came together, what drew him to the material, playing around with viewers’ expectations, and more.
Great to speak with you again, Ciarán, and congratulations on Eli. How did this project initially come together?
Ciarán Foy: Yeah, it was one that was brought to me, but brought to me at a really strange time. My son was two weeks old and so I was in the middle of zombieville and I was just not reading anything. I could barely see, never mind read. My agent was like, "I have a script I think you should read." I was like, "I really need some time because my wife has just given birth." He said, "You should definitely read this, because they want to get someone on this. They want to make it." So, I read it in one sitting at 3:00am, and you read so much horror that a lot of the time you read stuff and you're like, "Okay, we've sort of seen this," or whatever.
But straightaway, I felt a sense of empathy and a sense of stakes to the story of this kid, this boy in a bubble, essentially, who wasn't moving to a house for a fresh start with his family, as that tends to be the typical thing. It already had a sense of jeopardy and it was about him going to that house to find a cure for his condition. I liked that he was allergic to the world, and I was already glued to the page to see what was going to happen, and then the tense questions of, "What's really going on here? Who's telling the truth and who's telling lies?" I thought that spoke a lot to stuff we see every day today, like, "What's fake news? What's real, what's not?" And just this sense of the younger generation being lied to by the older generation. I thought that was cool.
I just kept turning the page and then it gets to a certain point, and obviously we don't want to spoil anything, but it takes a turn where it made me smile and say, "Holy shit," at the same time. That never happens to me when I read, just because you read so much. I was like, "I did not see that coming." I called my agent first thing in the morning and was like, "I would love to pitch on this."
I completely agree that this movie preys on genre fans’ perceptions so perfectly, because for two-thirds of this movie, you think you know what's happening and everything that's going on. Then, once it kind of flips everything on its head, you're like, "Oh my God, this is so unexpected." Was it cool to be able to take these very expected tropes and do something different with them?
Ciarán Foy: Absolutely. And because I'd just become a parent, it almost took on a bigger emotional impact for me. But it was this idea that we inherently trust and we do not doubt at that age our parents, our guardians. There are a lot of genre staples in this; there are ghosts, there are evil doctors and all that kind of stuff, but I'd never really seen it put together this way before and I'd never really seen one where, outside of three scenes, it's all from Eli's point of view.
That kind of highly intense subjectivity is something that I really respond to. It's what I loved when I wrote Citadel; it gave the movie an emotional attachment and empathy because you're discovering the story with the character. To see all that through the eyes of a kid and how it subverts a lot of things, I think the fresh angle of it adds so much. Also, with the house, I found it to be fascinating as well. It was initially described as something gothic that may have been a jail, may have been a religious institution, may have been a medical hospital, we don't know, but it's been refurbished and retrofitted to be this clean house. How do you manage to achieve that Goldilocks temperature of something that feels like a haunted place, a scary house, but also has a slight clinical/medical quality to it as well? That excited me.
Lili Taylor’s involvement was just one of the many reasons my interests were piqued with Eli, and Charlie [Shotwell] does a really great job in this as well, because there’s a lot riding on his performance. Can you discuss putting together this ensemble?
Ciarán Foy: I remember saying in the pitch that this movie will live or die based on who we get to play Eli. If you've got a 10-year-old who's just okay, it's not going to work. With Annie McCarthy, the casting director, I saw a lot of kids, and I was still trying to find a vulnerability that felt natural and wasn't performed, and so I was sent Charlie's audition as a self-tape and immediately I thought, "That's Eli." He had this vulnerable quality to him, and an honestness, and at the same time, there was a lot going on behind the eyes.
We met, and the only thing I wanted to see, which I hadn't seen on the self-tape, was a sense of anger, and so we did some improv to see that. Once I saw that he could do all colors of the rainbow, in terms of the performance that Eli needs to evoke, I was so relieved, because the hardest part was done and this kid was great. Then, everyone else sort of fell in after that. The mom in Eli's story is obviously a center point, and I needed someone strong for the mom. I had met Kelly [Reilly] previously, and I've always wanted to work with her. I think she's great, and she's underused. It was after that that we got Sadie, and then Max, and Lili was actually the last piece of the puzzle. We were trying for a long time to make the schedules work, and it was just such a treat to get to work with her.
You mentioned of course the location of this house, which becomes basically a character in itself the longer that they stay in this place. Can you talk about the inherent challenges that come with creating and shooting within this space? I think that the film thrives on the isolated locale, and it added a lot to this project.
Ciarán Foy: We shot in New Orleans, and one thing that I responded to when I first touched down in New Orleans, particularly in the air, was this interesting aesthetic. What if we had a thing where the outside in the movie, whether it's mist or fog or humidity or whatever, the outside feels toxic? Because that's how the world is to Eli, and the inside feels clean and safe, until it doesn't. That was one thing I responded to straightaway, but it was a hard challenge to find a house, because we looked everywhere, and to find something that felt gothic and old, there were not a lot of choices in New Orleans that weren't plantations or something that was related to that period in history. To find something that was maybe a little older, a little more gothic, was just not happening.
I ended up seeing a picture of this jail called the DeRidder Jail, and the second I saw it I was like, "That's the house." It has that sense of ambiguity to it, but it also feels overbearing and intimidating. The production designer and myself drove to this house four hours outside of New Orleans, and I was like, "This is it. It's perfect. Let's do it." Then the producers, rightfully so, were like, "That's four hours outside of New Orleans. We can't do that. We need to do it near our stages.” We had a pretty tight budget on this.
So, what we ended up doing was taking complete inspiration from that building, and in a field, we built the stairs going up to the door, we built the door, we built the archway and we built two windows on either side of the bottom floor. We had a chunk of real house, and then the rest of it came together because of our visual effects team. They took a lot of scans of the jail and we were able to make it bigger than the jail actually is. It's three-quarters digital, a quarter real, but all of the takes were done on an actual location. I think it turned out great.
[Photo Credit: Above photo by Netflix / Patti Perret.]