COULD YOU SURVIVE the collapse of civilisation? And how far would you go to protect your life?
These are questions posed by new Northern Irish film The Survivalist, which has been lapping up praise for its portrayal of a post-apocalyptic Ireland.
On set, it can’t have been fun – the cast went on strict diets, and lead actor Martin McCann even had to learn how to skin a rabbit in preparation.
“If you watch the film very closely you’ll see the gaze of a man who can’t wait for lunch,” jokes Belfast native McCann when he and Derry-born director Stephen Fingleton visit TheJournal.ie offices. ”No, seriously, it does get you in the mindset and does get you certainly disciplined.”
In the film, he plays the titular survivalist, a man who lives in a handmade cabin deep in the woods. He lives by his wits, on the edge, and is constantly aware that devious presences may be surrounding him.
Things shift when the survivalist – who has managed to create his own mini farm – meets a woman, Kathryn (played by veteran actor Olwen Fouréré), and her daughter Milja (Mia Goth, who starred in Nymphomaniac). The pair inveigle their way into his cabin, and life, all three hungry and aware that danger lurks outside in the long grass and heavy trees.
A post-apocalyptic tale
There are shades of Mad Max and 28 Days Later in The Survivalist, but the power in this film lies in its subtleties: rather than lingering shots of abandoned streets, or brash characters, it strips everything back.
There’s no soundtrack, so the rustling of leaves and tense bursts of the survivalist’s breath are enough to alert the viewer to potential danger.
Turning up on set every day hungry helped McCann – who says ‘I wouldn’t be a Daniel Day Lewis, now’ when it comes to method acting – get into the mindset of the survivalist. “There’s a hidden sense of awareness that comes with being really, really hungry all the time. It’s hard,” he says. “And to get to that state it did help with the drama process because there was a heightened sense of awareness.”
He didn’t have much weight to lose. “Martin’s skin was as tight as a drum,” says Fingleton.
The nutritionist who worked with Michael Fassbender and the cast of Hunger was on hand to guide their diet – McCann’s revolved around protein and rolled cigarettes (which sounds like it was torture – he wistfully says “I love my grub” while describing what he ate), while Fouéré’s was more plant based.
“These were long hours. There was an interior journey that was very gruelling for all three of the cast,” says Fingleton, who says that the diets affected Fouéré and McCann’s emotions differently.
There were also emotional effects of dieting, places you go to that you normally don’t. [As] an outsider, I could see how Martin changed completely as a person through this process.
The location for the film was as real as they come – a specially-built cabin, with a working wood fire and enough natural light to shoot in. Fingleton says they had “an actor- driven process”, where the cast could get quickly to set, and discussions about scenes and character motivation were welcomed.
Then there were the actual survival skills that McCann had to learn. “I went on a survival course thing with Survival NI. I learned to skin a rabbit and things like that,” he says, adding quickly. “I didn’t kill any rabbits – they were already dead.”
So I realised what it would be if we did have to confront this situation, if we did have to go out into the forest and live off the land, I certainly didn’t know the first thing to do – what to eat, what not to eat, how to build a hut, how to protect yourself.
Its lasting impact was to impress on him that he’s not a natural-born survivalist himself. ”I much prefer a hotel, personally,” he shrugs. He didn’t find it tough to play the character, though, calling the experience “quite natural”.
“I just wanted it to come to an end”
The last week of filming was the hardest. “I’ve been dieting, I just want to get back to some sort of normality because it’s quite draining,” says McCann. “It’s a tense film, you’re in the forest, and Northern Ireland is not warm even during the summer, especially under the shade of the forest. So the last week I just wanted it to come to an end.”
The film was inspired by the documentary Collapse, which centres on an eccentric conspiracy theorist. It explores the notion of ‘peak oil’ theory, which says that as fossil fuel prices rise, the world economy will begin to collapse. A neat graph of this bell curve during the beginning titles serves to explain this in the film.
“It’s a very simple message, which is our population will exceed the base of resources upon which we rely, and ingenuity can delay but not deny the inevitable decline that will result,” says Fingleton, who describes Collapse as a “lightning bolt” moment for him.
“Admittedly I have a personality that is susceptible to such things, and it began to change me,” he says. “It began to change the way I see everything.”
The main thing he learned on set was about human nature. “I’m always reminded how people don’t act in their own self interest, and that really is what the film is about, is we don’t realise that a lot of what we do, we might always react or behave not necessarily in our own self interest.”
I think you have to make choices to survive and some of those choices may seem to be selfish, you may need to do desperate things.
From dystopia to sci-fi
The film has been getting some solid reviews – The Guardian gave it four stars, describing it as a “tense and brutal thriller”, while the Hollywood Reporter said it was “an assured debut with a lean, life-and-death atmosphere” – and Fingleton has been nominated for a Bafta. The future looks bright for the Northern Irish director.
He’s currently in the middle of writing a science fiction film for a “fantastic company in the US with a wonderful producer in the UK”.
He won’t divulge too much information, only to say it’s for a mainstream audience, and will have some of the radical ideas he’s attracted to, “but it will be in a package that will entertain and attract a wide range of people”.
I’ve described it as a Total Recall for the Julian Assange generation.
McCann’s next two projects will bring him to Turkey and the Scottish Highlands. The latter is for a film named Calibre, which is about two friends who go on hunting trip during which something goes dramatically wrong.
He might find that his new survival skills come in handy for this new venture. ”I don’t rate the chances of whoever is up against Martin in this film,” laughs Fingleton.
The Survivalist is out in Irish cinemas now. Two short prequels to The Survivalist are available to view on wearecolony.com.