In Lorcan Finnegan’s Vivarium, home ownership takes an unsettling turn when two young prospective buyers (played by Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg) find themselves trapped inside a suburban subdivision, with no way out and their sense of hope dwindling with each passing day.
For Finnegan, the journey towards making Vivarium began years ago with a short film project of his entitled Foxes (which this writer was thrilled to screen as part of a film festival I used to host in SoCal), and during a recent interview, I spoke with him about his approach to this story, the through lines it shares with Foxes, and what inspired writer Garret Shanley’s script as well.
We also chatted about the challenges he faced while in production on Vivarium and his experiences collaborating with both of his co-stars, too.
Vivarium will arrive on VOD and Digital platforms this Friday, March 27th, courtesy of Saban Films.
So great to catch up with you again after all these years, Lorcan. I’d love to dig into the story here and how it ties back to Foxes. They’re different approaches, but there’s definitely some connective tissue, narratively speaking.
Lorcan Finnegan: Yeah, we made Foxes back in 2011, so a lot of the beginnings of this film came from that short film. Even in the process of making both films, of me going around trying to find locations to shoot in, where I was going into the ghost estates of these abandoned housing developments. Subsequently, a lot of those places ended up being bulldozed down and now we’ve come full circle, where they’re building more of these places again now in Ireland.
So the idea itself we wanted to explore on a global, universal philosophical scale with Vivarium after making the Foxes short, and I think we were also thinking about making a frightening film for young people, well, people who were around the same age as us when we started thinking about homeownership, which was ages ago [laughs]. Young people who haven’t gotten married yet or bought a home or any of that kind of stuff, what is it they’re really afraid of, because they’re not really afraid of monsters under the bed... not really.
What’s more interesting to us is the existential dread of losing your freedom, your youth, and your hopes. When you’re young, you imagine you could have this exciting, brilliant life, everything’s possible but the most frightening thing, often, is that your life just becomes very boring, where you get stuck in a routine and are trapped in a homogenized version of the suburbs.
Let’s talk about the visual style to Vivarium, because it’s very unnerving and I think the hyper-realism really adds a lot to the story, especially since this is supposed to be the dream—owning your own home—and even for as idyllic as everything is, these two people are caught in this endless nightmare.
Lorcan Finnegan: Well, it’s like you say, where this is the dream home that’s part of the dream place, so we wanted it to look a bit like a dream as well, almost as if they had become trapped in the brochure for this place that’s been Photoshopped. Even at the very early stage of the script, Garret Shanley, the writer, had described the place as looking like “L'Empire Des Lumieres the Magritte” painting, with the sky brighter than the ground and the houses. We wanted the fluffy white clouds, no wind, the weather’s always the same, and there are no other sounds, either.
With Foxes, we were focused on this concept of nature reclaiming an area and the central character finding freedom by rejoining nature in a supernatural kind of way, and we made a film called Without Name in between, which was also concerned about nature and communicating with the ineffable forces of nature and going too far trying to communicate with nature and all this strange stuff.
So, with Vivarium, it was always about what a place would be like if it was completely removed from nature. That’s one of our concerns as well, as people are removing themselves further and further from nature and it’s bringing sickness and anxiety and all that kind of stuff along with it. I wanted the place to be ultra sterile and fake looking, like artificial looking, but still look tangible, where you can touch and feel it, but it seems just “off.” The only way to do that was to build a set. We did look into locations and how we could possibly augment locations to shoot in, but it was never really going to work. There'd be too many risky variables we would have to deal with.
I did a test with a camera for going through a fully CG environment with the houses, and it gave me an opportunity to test colors and color theory and all that kind of stuff, which I’m interested in. I figured out a palette for the environment quite early on with this—the pastel minty green has this very anxiety inducing effect on the human mind. If it’s taken out of any kind of natural context, like nature green can have this lovely kind of feeling of freedom and lushness and life, whereas taken out of nature entirely it can take on quite a toxic quality, like toxic waste or a witch’s brew or something like that. It also has this institutional-like hospital-type vibe to it. And the plan was that it would bounce this greenish light onto the actor's face and make them look more sick.
When we got into production and prepped, the initial plan was we were going to build like 12 houses on a big, giant stage and then we realized we couldn’t afford that at all [laughs]. So we were only able to build three facades that Phil Murphy, the production designer, was working with, and he figured out this genius jigsaw way of being able to take off the front porch and remove the path and then the front garden with the back garden, and then we’d basically shoot into the same background all the time. So, if there’s a scene outside the house and two actors are talking, you’d have to film into the background set of three houses and then do the reverse angle, we’d still shoot into the same background. I think we only had one side of the street, so we’d have to flip the lights, flip the car, take the number 9 off the door, and it was a real logistical nightmare. We did all that in a warehouse in Belgium. Then, we did all the interiors in Ireland on a stage in Wicklow. So, every time they walk in and out of the house they’re going between two different countries as well [laughs].
Before we go, I’d love if you could discuss working with Imogen and Jesse for Vivarium. What’s so interesting to me is that the movie almost feels like it could be a play in a variety of ways.
Lorcan Finnegan: Yeah, even the structure of the script was always like a play with three acts and between each act, it goes black. Like curtains closing and reopening, time has passed. So yeah, in some ways shooting it all on a stage was probably good for us creatively because it was all fake and I think the environment was very helpful to both Jesse and Imogen. One of the things we did very early on was doing very natural performances within this very unnatural place, so it gave it this juxtaposition feeling, which is the heart of the film.
Also, it was important to me that you care about the characters even though they’re in this very trippy weird place that they never really address. They never talk about it openly. And both Jesse and Imogen were pretty easy to work with, especially since there was all this crazy stuff going on with time, with malfunctioning generators and everything we had to do for all the different setups. To have a difficult cast involved with this project would have probably broken my spirit entirely, but they were both wonderful to work with.