In theaters now is Citadel, the new thriller by writer/director Ciaran Foy. The film tells the story of a young man who becomes inflicted with agoraphobia and must take care of his infant daughter after the brutal murder of his wife by a gang of hoodlums. When he finds out that the attacks occurring in his housing project may not be isolated incidents he seeks the help of a nurse and a deranged priest to put an end to the evil plaguing his neighborhood. The film stars Aneurin Barnard (Hunky Dory, Ironclad), James Cosmo (Braveheart, Trainspotting), and Wunmi Mosaku (Womb, I Am Slave).
I recently had a chance to sit down with Ciaran Foy and talk about his new film, Citadel. He discussed the brutal real-life event that inspired the film, dealing with agoraphobia, the filmmakers that inspired him, and his love for soundtracks.
Here’s what the talented filmmaker had to say:
Latino Review: Similar to your film’s main character, you were the victim of a violent attack and you also suffered from agoraphobia. Can you talk about the real life event that inspired Citadel?
Ciaran Foy: When I was eighteen I was the victim of a pretty violent and vicious unprovoked attack. It happened where I had grown up which is in a suburb of Dublin. I was on my way back from the cinema and I said goodbye to my friend at one corner and the area between where I lived in and where the cinema is located is not the nicest of areas. So, there was this gang of five fourteen-year-olds and they were walking towards me and there was a younger one with them who was about ten and as I passed them they pushed the young guy into me. I got to say sorry and before I could say anything else I got a hammer across the face and I hit the deck. I was beaten with a hammer and one of them pulled my hair back and threatened me with a dirty syringe. They were all wearing hoods and I never saw their faces and to be honest the scariest thing about it was the fact that they didn’t want anything. They didn’t take anything. In a strange way, which fed itself back into the film, was that when you know the reason behind something, it could be anything, an act of terrorism, whatever; when you know the reason behind something, no matter how crazy it may seem, no matter how completely mental and tragic it may seem, you can eventually make a peace with it. But when you never know, when you never know the ‘why’s’ and the ‘how’s,’ that’s horrible. They took nothing from me but what they left me with was this trauma which eventually became agoraphobia. I didn’t have a word for it. I was still living at home with my parents and I was just scared shitless to even look at the front door, never mind walk outside. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. It was the letter to say I’d been accepted into film school that gave me the push I needed to finally face the door and get out of the house. I remember that morning, and it might seem cheesy, but the door seemed like this Kubrick-like monolith. For me the door seemed like it was further away than what it was just knowing that this was it and I’m going to do it. There’s a bit of my dad in the priest character. He’s a very grounded, pull-yourself-together kind of guy, which I needed. That shape became evil to me: the rectangle, the door. In the movie it’s the tower, it’s like a tombstone. I put my foot outside and immediately felt the ground rising and falling, which is something that I didn’t put in the movie because I feel it would have looked ridiculous. But I felt okay going about during rush hour. If it was a packed train then it was okay, but if the place was empty I would get a panic attack. I met the girl who is now my wife in the first year of film school and I confided in her that I’ve got this thing and I don’t know what it is. So she suggested that I go see this free counselor that was in the college. I kind of went just to placate her because I felt that was ridiculous: talk to somebody. But it ended up being the best thing that could have happened. One day my counselor and I were talking about body language and she had mentioned that a pedophile can walk into a room and identify a former victim based on the tiniest amounts of body language that we take for granted. She said similarly it’s as if these street thugs can see your fear. If your body says you are afraid, they zone in on that. You could walk down the worst area possible but if you look like you know where you are going they don’t bother you. I just felt that was the creepiest concept and I began to sketch this idea for a creature that was essentially blind but could see fear. It had nothing to do with my own life; it was like the Predator but instead of sensing heat it sensed fear. The more I spoke to people about it they would invariably ask, ‘where did you get this idea from?’ I would start talking about my own life. The reaction would always be, ‘well, you should put some of that in’. I was initially really resistant and I wasn’t narcissistic enough to think that my own life should be part of a film. More and more a fusion began with what happened to me mixed with my nightmares and how I saw the world and where I grew up at eighteen. So the movie definitely began from there.
How did you learn to cope with the agoraphobia that you were suffering from and go about living your daily life?
Foy: It was a process of seeing the counselor once a week and she taught me techniques that were right in front of my nose, simple things like trying to correct my body language especially when I would walk home. I was still living in that neighborhood at the time and there would still be gangs of kids loitering about. When I would still feel something if they would shout when I pass by, I would get annoyed at the fact I wasn’t achieving what she was saying. She asked me something one day which was a real eye-opener: we were talking about how I wanted to be a filmmaker and I said I remember an article about Steven Spielberg and it was saying that he sees and shoots and edits the movie in his head before he gets to set and there are other filmmakers who need to be on set to realize, ‘okay let’s shoot there’. I told her that I got excited when I read this as a teenager because I do that. I can conceive it in my head and rewind it and edit it and we were just talking about that one day but she asked me about it and she said, ‘remember, you were talking about this article, let me ask you a question: when you are walking down the street and you hear footsteps behind you or you hear a certain accent, do you play a movie in your head of the worst possible scenario? Do you see it unfolding?’ That was a big eye-opener because I do. She said if you know it is happening then you need to press the pause button because all it’s doing is fueling your paranoia. That may sound really simple bit it was a huge thing for me. From reading about it, it’s always the simplest of things. It’s never a magic concoction; it’s usually very simple. I still for most of my twenties wouldn’t go out on weekends because people were drunk and I didn’t like it. So, the moment when I felt like I was totally over this was when I finished the first draft of the script for Citadel.
Was writing the script therapeutic for you?
Foy: I was far enough removed so I felt I could delve back in. When I left film school I made a short called The Fairies of Blackheath Woods; I’m a geek at heart but at the same time I just want to make something horror or fantasy and nothing that has to do with my own life. So I reached a stage when I felt like I need to make this film. It took a long time to get it off the ground finance-wise. Because I started to bath my mind in scenarios that I would rather forget, I began to echo the arch of the main character, so when I was in the middle of writing it I remember my wife saying to me one day that I’m taking steps backwards because I was a mess, I was reliving it, but by the time I got to the end of it I felt empowered. I remember when I finally held the finished script in my hands that I felt control over it. Ultimately, having that fire at the end was a giant door on fire and the two last lines meant a lot to me. When Tommy asks if they’re gone and Danny says ‘they’re gone,’ it meant several things.
You mentioned Kubrick earlier and the film reminded me a lot of some of my favorite films like The Shining or David Cronenberg’s The Brood. Did either of those filmmakers influence you at all?
Foy: Absolutely! I think your favorite filmmakers are always floating around in the back of your head. I knew when people would see the movie they would think of The Brood because of the kids in the hoods but the guys who attacked me were kids in hoods. But no, I love early Cronenberg, and I love Kubrick. But also Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder was a big influence of Citadel. It makes me paranoid. There’s also a British artist named Chris Cunningham who I’m a big fan of.
The neighborhood that Tommy lives in is pretty extreme. Was the setting for Citadel based on any real life neighborhoods?
Foy: Basically it was a collage of where I grew up and places beside me. Where I lived there was a notorious tower block that has since been demolished. To me it was an ironic love letter to where I grew up. It kicked me when I was down but at the same time it inspired this movie.
What projects do you have coming up and are you interested in delving into genre films with bigger productions such as sci-fi or fantasy or action?
Foy: Absolutely! We’re doing The Brood remake [laughs]. I’m joking but I just recently got attached to a Hollywood production. I’m not allowed to say the name yet because they are going to make an announcement. I’m going to re-write the script. It’s a science fiction. I’m re-writing a presently existing screenplay and will be directing it at the end of next year.
In Citadel the score was fantastic and really added to that looming sense of dread. Does music inspire your writing process and your overall aesthetic or does that come after you’ve shot the film?
Foy: Music inspires me; it is what comes first. I have to play music when I’m writing. It thought it was so cool with Citadel because I’m a huge soundtrack fan, and one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard was the soundtrack to The Mothman Prophecies. I used to put on that whenever I was writing and it would put me right in the zone. It was just so cool because I was on the phone to my agent one day and we had just finished the rough cut and he asked who is going to do the music and I told him that I’m not sure and that I’m listening to a lot of CD’s of young guys and I guess as close to tomandandy as I could find and behind my back he sent the rough cut to their agent and they totally responded to the film and wanted to do it. So, the fact that I was working with the guys that did The Mothman Prophecies was amazing. So we did it all over Skype in two and a half weeks. But music entirely inspires me even with this sci-fi. I’ve been listening to a lot of Vangelis.
What are your top three favorite soundtracks?
Foy: Well, Vangelis with Blade Runner. Then I would have to say John Williams’ E.T., and then I love Hans Zimmer’s track for The Dark Knight.