We spoke with the writer and director of Vivarium, Without Name and Foxes — Lorcan Finnegan.
Lorcan Finnegan's exploration into uncanny dystopia settings started way before Vivarium, the highly-praised debut featuring Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg. His career began in creating surreal absurdist content for Zeppotron, one of Charlie Brooker's early ventures before Black Mirror, where he began shooting sketch comedy and motion graphics. Fast forward through his career, Finnegan started his own company Lovely Productions to pursue independent short films, which followed with Foxes, Without Name and Vivarium. The Irish director has been busy since and is working on several projects on the go including an upcoming film with Eva Green and Mark Strong.
We spoke with Finnegan on his key themes interwoven in each film, including what makes a dystopia, sociopolitical systems and Irish folklore.
This is the uncut conversation from our feature on ‘Dystopia in Cities’ coming out this Fall in print.
Interview by Faye Bradley and Sarah Wei.
Paradigm Haus: Could you give us a bit of background on yourself and how you got into filmmaking?
Lorcan Finnegan: I studied graphic design originally – I thought at the time that graphics was more like motion graphics, you know, from watching things like the Channel Four logo coming together and stuff like that. So I was like, oh yeah, that looks cool. Graphic design. And then I studied graphic design and it turned out to be mostly about print. But I started experimenting with animation in college, just sort of teaching myself some motion graphics and animation and I made a couple of short films, like fake trailers for movies, and a stop motion interactive game and stuff like that. When I graduated, I was really into absurdist comedy. So I was watching a lot of American and British surreal and absurdist comedy and was watching a show called Unnovations which was like a fake shopping channel comedy show and I got in touch with the creators of the show at Zeppotron in London. And I asked if I could get a job doing whatever. They were starting to make comedy content for the very first mobile phones with video that came preloaded with content. So I ended up getting a job with them and ended up editing some of this comedy content. They gave me a camera course and I started shooting some sketch comedy on a PD 150, which is a mini DV camera and doing motion graphics and intro sequences to the sketches and stuff like that.
That company actually ended up making Black Mirror much later – it was Charlie Brooker’s company. Then I started creating sketches myself with my friends in Dublin. I'd borrow equipment from work and fly back and make stuff with my friends. And then I realised that I preferred not working for anybody. So I started a small company, just to make my own stuff and started applying for short script awards and funding to try and get stuff made.
My first short film that had a budget was called Changes – it’s about two caterpillars in love and when they emerge after metamorphosis, with one of them has turned into an unpleasant butterfly. She's really mean to the other butterfly and they break up. It did well and won some festivals.
From there, I got to make more. I got funding for another short film called Defaced. I was putting everything I was doing on the internet. It was at a time when YouTube was really just coming up. Its content was user-generated and they were trying to get more short films and things like that. So a lot of people ended up seeing the shorts that I was making. And then an ad agency got in touch asking if I could direct a TV commercial in this style. So I started doing some TV commercials and music videos and that kind of thing. So it was kind of an organic transition from graphic design to filmmaking. I think once you start making films, there’s definite interest in feature films since it’s a big challenging project to take on, to create an entire movie. So that's what I'm doing at the moment.
PH: Your feature film Vivarium came out in 2019 which was actually before the pandemic hit. How do you think the meaning of the film has changed since its launch, with reference to concepts like self-isolation and people's views of the future?
LF: So Vivarium was coming out in March and I was in France. It came out in France first and then it was supposed to come in the U.S., in late March, early April. So I was in Paris and a lot of people came to see the film on the day of release but there was already a fear of coronavirus and people were a little bit wary. The next day the government started shutting down the schools and the following day they shut down cinemas. So it was a bit of a bummer. And then I had planned on doing a US promotional thing with Jesse and Imogen and then suddenly everything closed there too.
I was lucky, first of all, to make the film and I got to travel a lot to festivals and all that kind of thing. But then it took on this other life of its own when people were watching it during lockdown. A couple stuck in a house with a child that was driving them crazy, not being able to go anywhere. You know, Jesse's character, Tom contracts a mysterious illness and he starts coughing. There's a book showing some sort of strange virus that seems to be dividing into a man and woman with this child in the middle. So there are all these weird coincidences. In some ways, if you're interested in collective consciousness, in which humans all share similar ideas and thought patterns, then maybe it was inevitable that we were going to make this film to be released for to watch during quarantine. It’s certainly interesting but I've never got to see it from that perspective. When you make a film, you never really get to see it as an audience member would. And even then the experience I'd have wouldn't be the same as seeing somebody seeing during lockdown as a completely fresh thing. Did you guys see it during lockdown?
PH: We did yes. I think it was kind of like April or May last year.
LF: Right. It must have taken on a whole other meaning, but I think maybe it did no harm in a way because it's quite existential in a lot of regards. So, I imagine people had a lot of time to think about their life and the future and what they would like life to be perhaps, while they were stuck at home.
PH: You mentioned quite a bit about Irish folklore in your film. How do you think this Irish folklore or these stories have influenced your creative processes?
LF: It's interesting. It's hard to tell what parts are folklore for me. I've always been interested in folklore and mythology, Greek mythology, Roman mythology and those stories because they generally have a dual purpose. Their narratives are there to steer society or give whoever's listening to the story some sort of moral guidance. And that’s sort of the function of folklore in many ways. There's a lot of fairy stuff, I guess that could be related to Vivarium and Without Name. But Irish fairies aren't really, you know, like Tinkerbell or anything. It's much more of an idea that nature is an entity in itself and it sort of manifests as the faerie rather than a fairy and you know, there are ideas that they live under hills and all that kind of things. So, I’ve seen people draw parallels between Martin and some sort of changeling and that fairies live underground. So, I mean, maybe subconsciously there is an element of that. But it wasn't put into the film as some sort of Irish folklore, but at the same time, I think our role, Garrett and I work together at creating these stories that could be, considered as modern folklore, because the means of telling stories now is different to when like people sat around the fire, before electricity. Now you can have an audiovisual story being told and it can still be folklore essentially.
PH: Are there any futuristic concepts you've integrated into your films to kind of enhance this dystopic theme? Like where did they come from – are they parallel universes?
LF: Vivarium was influenced a lot by art, architecture and film. The idea of the lifting of the curb, I think came from like a Bansky painting, like lifting a curtain on the side of the street and sweeping stuff underneath, which sort of drew a parallel between what's underneath, what's behind, what's the kind of machinery that's driving consumer-capitalist society is never something that we really see and it's sort of behind the curtain. So I think that’s where that idea came from. But yeah, I mean I was influenced by people like Roy Andersson, David Lynch's films and Todd Haynes’ film Safe.
It's also been a while since I've made the film – I’m currently making another film. So it's hard to remember where all the various influences come from. But I don't think it was so much thinking about this topic, worlds or dystopia, trying to do a film version of that. It’s more that we’re trying to explore themes, and through these themes create dystopic sort of environments for the stories play within. And that version of dystopia, it's just this world of homogenous, characterless, de-humanised, gigantic housing developments. This was what was inspired by Foxes and what really went on after the crash in 2008 – all these abandoned housing developments with people living there and they were really trying to get out of their predicaments, but they were trapped there because they bought a house that cost way too much money and the banks wanted the mortgage paid back and all of that. So on a kind of parallel, the world we were creating for Vivarium was like an amplification of all of that in order to show how strange and absurd real-life would be if we all decided to that let a capitalist mindset just go for it – that’s what you'd end up with because they would literally strip back all of the natural world and cement you into little boxes that make it very easy to predict your behaviour and bleed you dry in order to just expand and keep growing, a little bit like Yonder itself. So, yeah, I mean, that probably leads to the whole technology thing as well, where like, you know, what the problem is with the future and all of this. Yeah. But it doesn't look good [laughs].
"That version of dystopia, it's just this world of homogenous, characterless, de-humanised, gigantic housing developments"
PH: What is your take on us living through this internet age with all this new technology in a virtual reality-driven future?
So I saw an article about cows in Japan wearing VR headsets that were showing green pastures that made calmer and produce more milk. It's a pretty grim concept, but yeah, I mean, it's strange. It's strange, but there's the version of the future where everyone just kind of goes along with it and just keeps on allowing their data out and all of that kind of thing, which is one version of one trajectory, but I wouldn't be surprised if it became more punk and new wave to reject all of that and start taking privacy more seriously.
They may start using technology to better society rather than just kind of continuing in this sort of untenable pyramid scheme where people end up quite unhappy because they're in a pursuit of happiness that is actually not real. It's something that's advertised. So I guess that's the difference between individualism and community and all of that. Technology is bringing people together in a lot of ways, but it's also alienating people and isolating them and giving them sort of a false sense of reality. So, yeah, it'll be interesting to what happens. I don't have the answers to how we save ourselves from a horrible world like Yonder in Vivarium, but I think it's up to the younger generations as well. There's a responsibility for everybody to leave behind a world to the next generation, but then it’s also up to the next generations to visualise the kind of world that they want to live in and then make that into reality.
PH: Yonder exists as its own community – there were only two people. Did you ever think about adding the other variables of neighborhood – more people and neighbors and stuff – and how does that kind of affect the society?
Well with Vivarium, the idea is quite abstract. As we were developing the story, we conceptualised that there are other people in the houses, but they can't see each other, which is sort of mirroring subdivisions and these sort of housing developments on commuter belts where people don't actually know their neighbours and never see them because everyone is working all the time. We were also interested in string theory while working on this as well, that each home is sort of vibrating at a frequency that the next home is out of sync with. When Gemma goes underneath the curb and experiences the other houses, it's as if she's able to pass through these other dimensions and see there are people going through the exact same kind of things. And some people are handling it better than others. The idea was that the place is actually full of people, but nobody can talk to each other. They're all trapped in their own little worlds.
PH: What do you think post-modern culture would look like? In the context of Vivarium, there wasn't much of that community culture that we get in regular neighbourhoods or in this kind of like ghost estates, how they were kind of created from scratch?
LF: Maybe I'm just optimistic, but I have a feeling that people are starting to feel the absence of community in society. And I think that even during the whole lockdown, people are starting to notice and appreciate the smaller things like that, like knowing the people down the road and your neighbour, spending time locally and shopping locally and all of that kind of thing. Maybe that could be a positive takeaway from the whole pandemic, that there’s more of a veering towards respect and admiration and desire for community rather than pre pandemic when it was everyone was so busy working and trying to reach goals that were impossible and not spending enough time to just enjoy life and see their family and friends.
I'd like to think that post-modern society is more focused on community and producing local products and supporting the local community and less about giant corporations owning everything. Even like 20 years ago, you know, if you go traveling, each city fell quite different, you know, different shops. I remember people would come back from France with H&M clothes and you're like, oh, cool you got that in France. Whereas now every high street is pretty much the same, everywhere in the world has the same stuff, which makes it all a bit boring, you know? It would be nice to see less of that and more choice and more local-based business. The film I’m working on now is sort of dealing with fast fashion and exploitation. I think people expect everything to be cheap. Therefore these giant companies do well because they buy up all of the smaller shops and offer people cheaper things. I think that if people appreciate spending money on things that lasted longer the community will do better and everyone would probably be happier.
PH: Do you have any recurring themes or themes that you would like to explore more in your filmmaking?
LF: It seems that these films have a cyclical theme to the nature of the narrative. When you're making a film, you need to care about it – the themes that you're trying to explore – enough to fuel the duration of development up to pre-production, production, post-production, you know because the whole process takes years. So it needs to be something you're passionate about. The current film obviously I’m very passionate about. It has interesting themes on folklore and culture and cultural differences from the east and the west. It’s about a Filipino nanny who moves into the home of a fashion designer who is suffering from a mysterious illness and she uses a traditional folk healing to reveal a horrifying truth.
I'm working on another project with the same writer that's about war, creating monsters in order to start wars and steal natural resources. So I suppose they're quite universal themes that explore humanity but in a slightly sci-fi or genre way. The narratives wrapped up in a way that's engaging I hope, but also it is multilayered and people get to disseminate it afterwards.
"These are themes that I'm interested in as well, like belief and the power of belief and how ancient storytelling and beliefs changed your physicality. And how modern society depends so much on big pharma and really trusts companies that we know we shouldn't trust a hundred percent"
PH: Can you take us through how your creative process starts? Does it start from these themes that you were just talking about, like what's topical, for example?
LF: It's not like we think, oh, what's topical? It’s more about what are we interested in and the starting point can be different for different projects. For example, the war film was inspired by paintings in the National Gallery here of David and Goliath. David is standing over Goliath and he looks like he's about 15. Goliath is looking at him with sad eyes, not wanting his head to be chopped off. He looks like a sympathetic character and that image is what inspired the story. And with Vivarium, I suppose it was socio-political events that ended up inspiring the story because we made Foxes based on what was going on. And then that developed into Vivarium.
With Without Name, it’s about a land surveyor who ends up trapped in this forest being protected by an entity. I think that was kind of vaguely inspired by a documentary about the Finnish nuclear waste disposal programme, burying nuclear waste underground and sealing it up because it will be dangerous for the next 2000 years and how they warn future generations not to go down there as it we don’t even know what language people will speak in the distant future. I guess that Garrett and I talk to each other a lot, so we ended up discussing these ideas and themes – talking and watching stuff and talking and watching stuff and then stories start to emerge and then I gather visuals and we watch a lot of films, documentaries, share them with each other and then the writing process starts and that can go for a couple of years. Generally, it takes maybe three or four years from the beginning of an idea to getting it into production.
PH: Would you say there’s any period in history of artists that you feel most inspired by or nostalgic for? Would you want to explore these even more in the future?
LF: Hmm, not really a period in time. I mean, in terms of films, I think I’m inspired by the sixties and seventies because they were a little bit more free. They were breaking the mold and experimenting and making really interesting films.
Now, there are new techniques emerging and new types of filmmaking coming out. But in terms of a time, not really, I mean, I'm interested in doing a prehistory story, set in the bronze age. There's an amazing museum here in Dublin with preserved bodies which were found in bogs from the bronze age. There's a guy who you can see who had his hair slicked back and has been preserved – he has his nipples cut off and apparently Kings used to have their nipples sucked and they cut his nipples off so they could never become King. So you know, it was an interesting time.
PH: What elements do you think make up a dystopian society? How do you integrate that into film?
LF: Ultimately a dystopia is like the opposite of utopia. And I think a lot of that comes from the feeling of dehumanisation, a lack of control and love, happiness, humanity, all those kind of things. I think with Vivarium, what we’re trying to do is create a very synthetic world that was tangible, but fake. So the boy was only mimicking a human only in order to reproduce like a brood parasite. He was completely devoid of humanity and the place is devoid of nature. The food is vacuum packed, processed and stuff just arrives boxes. So to me, that is a horrible nightmarish dystopia where everything looks the same and everything's synthetic and there's no nature anywhere to be found.
PH: So actually what film are you working on now?
LF: It's called Nocebo and it's starring Eva Green and Chai Fonacier, a Filipina actor and Mark Strong. We just shot for six weeks in Ireland. And we still have about seven days of filming to do in Manila. So we’re going to Manila in May, so will have to start prepping that and then shoot it and then it'll be finished early next year. And that's the film I was talking about a fashion designer suffering from a serious illness until the Filipino nanny helps her by using traditional folk healing and to reveal a horrifying truth. It explores themes of exploitation of the east by the west, fast fashion and consumerism, but it's also quite supernatural and definitely has an element of the psychological.
Stay tuned for the debut of Finnegan's upcoming film Nocebo set to release in January 2022.