Arriving in select theaters and on all VOD platforms this Friday the 13th is co-writer/director Aislinn Clarke’s Satanic stunner, The Devil’s Doorway, which transports viewers back to the year 1960, when an Irish convent is being investigated by two priests (Lalor Roddy, Ciaran Flynn) after it is revealed that a Virgin Mary statue on the premises has been weeping blood, and they must determine whether or not the act is a bona fide miracle. What the priests uncover is far more sinister than they could have ever imagined, though, and the holy house of horrors’ demented secrets are all captured on 16mm film.
Daily Dead recently spoke with Clarke about The Devil’s Doorway, and she discussed the inspiration behind her debut feature film, as well as the challenges of shooting a movie found footage style, mostly on 16mm film to boot. The up-and-coming director also chatted about wanting to deliver a surprising story for viewers, her experiences collaborating with Roddy, and more.
Great to speak with you, Aislinn. I would love to hear a little about what inspired you and your co-writers (Martin Brennan, Michael B. Jackson) when you were writing the script for The Devil’s Doorway, and then also in terms of taking this approach with the film. I think the 16mm look suits this story very well.
Aislinn Clarke: Well, the way it happened was this: I studied film, but that was many years ago and I had worked in TV, too. I've been working in theater for a number of years and also writing and making short films. The producers of this film had less than a page of a paragraph idea—a very vague sketch of an idea that they wanted to make a found footage film. It was contemporary, modern day and partly set in an abandoned Magdalene Laundry. So I think probably what they were talking about there was something more like a Grave Encounters-style film, and they wanted to shoot on GoPros at that point.
And then, when they looked at a number of directors, the film board here in Northern Ireland put them on to me because they said they wanted improv elements and I was known as a theater director. They'd booked other people, too, but they booked me and I thought, "I love the idea of a horror film set in a Magdalene Laundry," because that's something that's very close to my heart. I had my son when I was seventeen, the year after the last Magdalene Laundry closed, so I felt like I could have been one of these girls, and I've always felt an affinity with the women who were in these places.
So, I thought this was a great opportunity to use horror as a metaphor to unpack a real social horror, a real-world thing. And I thought, "But I don't think this is the right way to do it." If I was going to do it, I would set it in 1960 at the peak time of these places, and shoot it on 16mm, because there is so much found footage and just a lot of it looks very much the same. So, this would really make it stand out, and also it's appropriate for the time and everything. I thought I might never hear from these guys again because it's totally different to what they're talking about. But they really liked that idea, so that's how it happened. I was glad that they came back to me and said, "We really like the sound of this," because I was really excited about doing this, but only if we could do it like that.
Were you guys able to shoot on 16mm then, or did you have to cheat it with technology?
Well, it's a little bit from column A, a little bit from column B. In the beginning, myself and the DP, Ryan Kernaghan, who is brilliant by the way, had shot some short films on 35mm. I had shot lots of 8mm films myself for many years, too. Both of us were really interested in working with film and the special type of quality that it has. We were able to convince the producers that it would definitely pay off, and that we were used to shooting in film and that we would be able to do it without wasting tons of reels, and they compromised.
We sold them on the idea that it was necessary for the authenticity of the piece, which is important to them, and I think that it really was, and I think it has paid off. But the compromise was that we would shoot anything that needed VFX, or that was in extremely low light, digitally, and then we did work in post to match it up.
I know it’s easy for people to think that when it comes to making a found footage film, "Oh, that's such an easy way to make a movie," but I think that it's actually harder, because you have to compensate for the reason for the camera to be there. Can you talk about some of the challenges with working with the found footage structure for this film?
Yeah, I think found footage has its pluses and its minuses. It frees you up in some ways, but it constricts you in others. You can shoot a bit quicker if you know what you're doing because you don't have to worry about reverses and other things you would need to get when you do a traditional narrative film format. For example, one of Lalor's monologues, he really nailed that performance-wise, so we didn't have to worry about going back and getting the reverse angle of that and trying to match the performance.
But the challenge with found footage are things like, as you say, you need to have a narrative that accounts for that camera at all times, and I did, as much as possible, try to address that, with probably varying degrees of success. But for me, Father John, the younger priest who is doing all the documenting, he would have been a documentarian if he wasn't a priest. Quite often you find priests that are hobbyists in something else. I've actually met a lot of priests who were horror film fans, but that's a talk for another day [laughs].
There was a longer scene which gets into that. It was cut eventually and just a portion of it's still there, but it doesn't get into the meat of it like it did in a previous edit of why the camera's important to Father John emotionally and what it means to him to have it there.
You mentioned Father Thomas, who drives the story in The Devil’s Doorway, and his struggle throughout the film in terms of his own faith and his own belief system, is really interesting. Can you talk about your experiences working with Lalor on this character?
Well, the script was written before Lalor was on the scene, and we didn't know who was going to play this character. I think a lot of the things he says actually are straight from my own father's mouth, nearly word for word—things that my dad had expressed to me over the years and I picked up from him. He actually died just days before it went into pre-production, so it was a strange timing of events. A lot of my dad is actually in that character. It felt like we auditioned everybody in Ireland for this role. There were some really excellent people, but they just weren't exactly right.
I can't remember exactly how he came to us. I think maybe he'd seen the script because we'd auditioned one of his friends or someone he knew, and he got in touch and said, "I really want to audition for this. I think this is a role for me." So, he came down to my office and he just instantly got it. It was just so right. He just had this beautiful vulnerability that I was really looking for, because from the very outset I was aware if we're going to make a film that is criticizing the Catholic church state at this time, we want to make sure of what we're criticizing exactly.
I'm not a religious person at all. I just don't have it in me, but I have friends who are, and I respect that. And I don't think faith is the problem. I think it was the structure of the church state as an entity that was the problem, that created this labyrinthine structure in which people just became cogs, and bad things were able to happen. So, it was important to me that he would have those dialogues so that the audience would understand what it is we're saying. We're not saying Catholicism's bad across the board. It's not the religion that makes it bad, it's the power and how it's used.
I love the fact that you completely subvert expectations with your story. I don't want to go into too many specifics, because I feel like those are really good reveals for the audience, but can you talk about delivering a story that maybe people aren't necessarily expecting?
Yeah, I agree with you. I think that because I'm also a massive horror fan, and I watch absolutely everything like you do, and have done for years—I saw A Nightmare on Elm Street when I was seven and I've been watching horror films ever since. And I watch everything—good, bad, and indifferent—I watch it all. So I know the genre and all the sub-genres really well. I know all the tropes really well, and I know that I don't want to play by the rules. I don't want to be sitting there and I don't want that person in the audience saying, "Oh, I know what's going to happen," and then it happens.
This is ostensibly a possession film, but it's not really—it isn't really that to me, and certainly not in the straight horror sense, either. So I guess it comes from knowing the language of the genre, and then not delivering on that, but giving something else so that it's not predictable and that it feels fresh, and that it keeps you engaged, and has something new to say rather than just treading on ground which isn't interesting for me or for the audience.