Mortgages are so bizarre. It’s like even the words mort-gage, it’s like death gauge. Well, when are you going to die? Right. Okay. Oh, here’s some money.
Lorcan Finnegan directed the gleefully terrifying Vivarium, a vivid (and scarily recognisable) vision of the inescapable horrors of family life and suburbia in a modern, capitalist society.
Vivarium – it means an enclosed area for raising animals and plants so they can be observed – stars Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg as Gemma and Tom, who after viewing a house on a new estate of identikit houses find they can’t leave.
Food, and eventually a baby boy, are delivered to them, with a promise that once they’ve raised him they can finally go home…
With its cinema release parked because of you-know-what, Vivarium is now available on digital, for you to watch while stuck at home with your families.
I spoke to Lorcan at last year’s London Film Festival. We talked about being trapped, ghost town housing estates, brood parasites and more… (My 4-star Vivarium review is here.)
Sarah: I saw Vivarium yesterday and really enjoyed it. I didn’t really have much idea of what it was going to be about. I like sci-fi, I knew it was going to be kind of sci-fi…
Lorcan Finnegan: Probably better if you don’t know anything!
It seemed really Twilight Zone-y. You wrote the screenplay…
No, Garret [Shanley] wrote it. People get confused by this. We share a “story by” credit, we come up with stories together, but he writes the scripts. So it’s a development thing where we both feed into what the story is and what it’s about, but he’s the writer.
So how did the ideas come about? What were your influences?
We made a short film, Foxes. It’s scary-ish in the same kind of way, in a sort of existential way.
We made that in 2011 together, and it’s more of a supernatural story, but it was set in a ghost estate which are these housing developments in Ireland that were left over during a recession.
There were these massive housing developments built in the middle of nowhere with all these clone houses, and people got 100% mortgages to buy these places, way overpriced. And then suddenly there’s a recession and they’re stuck there. They can’t sell it, and they can’t leave it.
So in that story there was a couple living in this place with hundreds of houses. Which wasn’t uncommon at the time. So those were ideas and themes that we were exploring in that short and we wanted to expand upon them in a much more sci-fi way, in a kind of quantum strange way.
And at the same time we watched this documentary by David Attenborough, about the lifecycle of the European cuckoo. [laughs]
The thing is everyone knows what cuckoos do, but I’d never actually seen it. When it started [at the beginning of Vivarium] it was actually really fascinating to see how brutal it is.
It’s pretty brutal. And it’s just nature. It’s just, it’s not like they want to take over the world. It’s just the symbiotic relationship between two things. They’re brood parasites, which I find really interesting because it’s frightening in a horrible way. It’s like a disease, which doesn’t pick people, it just does it.
So there was that, plus the ideas we were exploring, and that amalgamated into the script.
I remember when I was pregnant thinking that’s a symbiotic relationship, things are taken out of you by this baby, though you want it to be well. But it’s a weird feeling. To me Vivarium was about motherhood.
I guess depending on people’s life stages, they’ll take different things out. Was your focus on suburbia and being trapped? What kind of reactions have you seen?
It’s weird because some guys think it’s all about fatherhood. Some people see it as much more of a commentary on this social construct, and being forced into a life that they don’t want.
I mean, we’re trying to create a universal story about both. That’s why the couple are very normal people. They’re just regular people that weren’t expecting this to be their day. So that people could relate to them and take away things themselves.
It’s a little bit abstract so there’s plenty of room for people to see their own life reflected in the story.
I thought it was really witty. There’s one scene where she’s on the loo, and I thought “well this is really accurate”. There’ll be a hand coming under the door. Or you just want to have a bath without that little face popping up.
I also really loved Gemma’s outfit. She’s wearing the same clothes the whole time, but to start with when she’s working, it’s just cool and comfy. Once you’re a mum it’s: “it’s clean and it’s washable”. It becomes a uniform that you don’t want. Sorry, I’m just talking your film back to you…
No, it’s good that you were thinking about it.
And I really liked the hole that Tom’s digging, because it’s like a man’s hobby in his shed. The thing that will never be finished.
To me it’s a metaphor about work. You get up in the morning, go to work. Or, you know, paying back a debt or something like that.
And once you’re in it, everything just keeps you there, doesn’t it?
Yeah. Mortgages are so bizarre. It’s like even the word mortgage, it’s like death gauge. Well, when are you going to die? Right. Okay. Oh, here’s some money.
You had a really impressive cast. Imogen Poots has does some really interesting indie stuff.
Yeah. she’s brilliant. I watched everything that she was in before meeting her. Her agent got the script, really liked it and we were waiting for availability and all that kind of stuff. It’s really tricky trying to cast.
And then we met in London for coffee and ended up just getting on really well. We’re both into the same kind of art and photography and films and then we offered her the part and she said yes.
We went for lunch and we were talking about who would get to play the guy, because she’s the lead really, and she suggested Jesse and I hadn’t really thought of him. I don’t know why. I think I thought he’s probably too famous a Hollywood actor kind of person.
But also Imogen could have said no and then we’d have to start again. So they have to match in height and physicality and all that.
So I was going, “God, Jesse Eisenberg actually would be really interesting” and I quickly had to make a few calls to people to make sure everyone was good with that, and they were like, “yes, if you can get him that’s perfect for our finance plan.”
Then Imogen fired him the email there and then on her phone with the script attached.
He read it in two or three days and wanted to meet in New York. So I flew up to New York and we hung out, and I met his wife and his baby. We walked around the city all day talking about stuff, and he really liked it. He got it. So he said yes.
The actual Yonder housing estate [in Vivarium], is that CGI? Or did you find one of these lost housing estates and paint it all green?
I did do a lot of scouting for places, we were always very prescriptive about what the place needed to look like. Because it plays its character in the film. So we needed to have no winds, no rain, no sounds, no insects and birds, no anything.
All these things you don’t notice until they’re not there.
Yeah, exactly. Totally. There’s a scene in The Witches by Roald Dahl. You know the girl trapped in the painting? [a young girl is taken by a witch and then reappears in a painting on her family’s wall, growing old as time passes] It’s really horrific.
I wanted to feel like they were stuck in a brochure for a place that has been photoshopped, and it’s kind of storybook fake, synthetic but still tangible. So we ended up building three houses – facades, gardens, footpaths, roads, in a warehouse in Belgium.
And then extending that with plate photography, and some CG for when the camera’s moving. It’s a combination of techniques. And it was also that the place was described as being like Empire of Light by René Magritte [a series of paintings of a nighttime street with a daylit sky above].
The clouds were one of the scariest things because when we feel trapped, we look up because we think “the universe is so old and so enormous and it’s not symmetrical”. And it shows us there’s life out there. But when you look up [in Vivarium], it’s literally cotton wool clouds that all look the same. It’s that feeling of oppression, isn’t it? I thought they were really, really creepy.
You know those areas which everyone dreamed of post-war, garden cities and things like that. To have a house like that was “wow, I’ve really made it”, whereas now it’s almost the opposite. They’ve been enjoying life and then it’s, “Oh well I’m going to buy a semi”, and people are sometimes embarrassed to admit it, aren’t they?
It’s like admitting defeat or something. The thing is, the idea of the nuclear family and the suburbs is relatively new, it is that post-war thing.
But then I think that got adopted by capitalism where they go “take this place, it’s cheap land, we’ll build as many houses as possible by repeating the same pattern”. In almost like a fractal pattern.
There’s never any infrastructure, you can’t walk anywhere.
That’s the problem. It’s completely separated from community. In villages in the past, a village here, and a village here, would expand until they joined and then they’d become city. It’s sort of organic.
As opposed to five thousand people are living there and nothing. You know, they don’t know their neighbours and that’s why the place [in Vivarium] is empty, though at the end there’s a suggestion…
And I think also for young people, there’s an anxiety around that. There’s a fear around that, that we wanted to tap into a little bit.
And they package it as individuality and sell it back to us.
Exactly. Like Martin at the beginning of the film [the creepy estate agent who shows Tom and Gemma round the house in Yonder, played by Jonathan Aris].
He’s got one of those familiar yet spooky faces. What do you find frightening? Do you watch a lot of horror films?
I’m not a horror-horror person, slasher things, ultra violence or anything like that. I’m more interested in the psychological, or a sort of existential dread.
A vacuous life, I would find more frightening. You know, all your hopes and dreams that you might have, being taken from you.
I can’t watch supernatural films. I still haven’t seen The Exorcist. But people are like, “The babysitter let me see that at twelve”. They always seem to have seen the scariest horror films when they were young.
I grew up watching all those. I mean I love the more 60s, 70s, 80s horror. And then a lot of the horrors coming out now are brilliant as well. But I definitely prefer the slightly more abstract ones.
I watched – it’s not really a horror film, but it is in some ways – 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was really young, like about nine or something, and that messed me up [laughs].
How long did it take to make Vivarium?
Between beginning, the development, it was a couple of years of writing and tweaking. And then probably another year then casting, waiting for things, waiting for finance to come through. And then we shot last summer , for five and a half weeks. And then we posted for about eight months. So in total, probably about four, five years.
We made Foxes as a short and then we were supposed to do Vivarium. But it was all so slow that we made Without Name, which ended up being my first feature.
Isn’t that a similar premise in that he’s stuck somewhere…
Yeah. A land surveyor is asked to measure an area of forest by a dodgy developer. Because the place has never been owned by anybody and never been measured by anybody. Never been named by anybody.
It’s called “gan ainm” in Gaelic, which is “without name”. It has a supernatural force that protects it from being meddled with and it gets into the guy’s head.
You are scared of being trapped aren’t you!
Yeah. I guess that’s the one thing that people always want, the sense or the belief that there’s freedom.
In filmmaking you’ve got that constant pressure of compromise to get the thing made. Are you okay with that? Or do you feel you’re constantly pushing the walls back?
It’s just trying to get more films done as quickly as possible. But I think it just takes a little while, especially moving into feature films. You’re going to have to do one that’s good. And then they give you more money for the next one and they go, “Oh that turned out good too.”
Then it becomes easier, and people know who you are, and actors trust you, and actors’ agents are interested in what you’re doing. But trying to break in at first, there’s so many people that have come to do their first thing, that’s difficult. But I’ve been doing it for a long time.
Do you actually get to watch that many films?
Not really. They always seem to be programmed at wonky times. There’s a lot of films that I still really want to see. Vertigo are releasing The Nightingale which I really want to see.
There’s another Imogen and Jesse film that’s really good. It’s very different – it’s more of a dark comedy, called The Art of Self-Defense.
I think she gets to really shine in Vivarium because it’s really on her. Her performance was always incredible.
Yes I thought she was amazing. I love that cry, “I am not your mother!” We’ve all wanted to say that. I just really loved your film.
Well, thank you. Yeah that’s really interesting, the clothes thing…
VIVARIUM was released in the UK and Ireland on digital 27 March 2020 courtesy of Vertigo Releasing and Wildcard Distribution.