Writer/director Stephen Fingleton discusses the making of his stunning debut, post-apocalyptic character study The Survivalist
Filmmakers have long been obsessed with the mechanics of humanity’s demise, from the dusty dystopia of Mad Max to the decaying wastelands of The Road. For first time Northern Irish filmmaker Stephen Fingleton, however, the apocalypse was a far more personal concept. “I saw a documentary by Chris Smith, called Collapse, about a very paranoid individual who had a convincing theory about how industrial civilisation would collapse,” Fingleton says. “I was so intrigued by it that I began imagining myself in that circumstance, considering different options for survival.”
The result is The Survivalist, which imagines the shifting dynamics between an isolated male survivor (played by Martin McGann) and the two women (Olwen Fouere and Mia Goth) who happen upon his forest farmstead. “I was interested in showing what happens after a calamity in a location we’ve not seen, which is a thriving forest depleted of people,” explains the filmmaker of his decision to keep the action in one location. “It’s much more effective if you imagine how devastated everything else will look and how that world has deformed the characters, rather than seeing how the world is deformed.”
In his exploration of post-apocalyptic psychology, Fingleton makes some striking observations about the nature of gender politics in a world stripped of societal rules. “When I began writing the film, I became very interested in depicting human sexuality when the vestiges of society are removed,” he says. “I thought the most interesting way to tell the story was to humanise a man who uses his position, in a way, to have sex. Because men exist in those positions in every facet of modern society and, to some extent, it’s almost a satire of modern sexual politics.”
Given these weighty themes, not to mention the sparsity of dialogue and absence of music, Fingleton knew he had to find a cast able to convey the drama and emotion of his story through performance alone. “Had there been a weak link it wouldn’t have worked, but it was alchemy,” he says of his exceptional trio of actors. “They knew what the truth of the scene was and they were very generous with each other. All three actors brought a huge amount to what is a very underwritten script, and there’s such dimensionality in their performances, and such individual styles.”
Individual is perhaps also the best word to describe The Survivalist itself, which is a strikingly uncompromising work for a first-time writer/director. “The script was very well liked,” Fingleton says of finding supporters who shared his vision, “and I worked with producers who believed in me. Northern Ireland Screen were also onboard, so the main job was to convince the BFI – and they took a lot of convincing. But that process, while challenging, was very useful because I made SLR and Magpie, both of which allowed me to refine elements of my style. When you’re making a film that nobody cares about until it’s made and seen, you have no choice but to try and make something great.”
The reactions of festival audiences and critics – not to mention the BIFA win and BAFTA nomination – would certainly suggest that Fingleton has achieved his goal, and it’s already opening up a wealth of opportunity. “I am working on a large scale US project that I can’t say very much about apart from the fact that it’s set in the future,” he reveals. “It’s a mainstream film with a very provocative idea at its core.” But while this progression from independent film to big budget movie is film-making’s Holy Grail, Fingleton remains pragmatic about the future. “I have a limited window of opportunity to try and realise my ambitions,” he grins, “and I hope to use it.”
The Survivalist is released on the 12th February 2016.