“I present the monster to you within the first 15 or 20 minutes, and I give it to you in full broad daylight in lots of shots. It’s just that it happens to look like an 8-year-old boy.”
First-timer Lee Cronin’s The Hole in the Ground made its world premiere in the Midnight slot at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year with the sort of buzz normally reserved for established directors. The hot anticipation was partly attributable to the fact that his talked-up 2016 short film Ghost Train—embedded in its entirety in this story—garnered a cult following amongst genre fans, and before the Park City event, the Irishman’s feature debut was already being scooped up around the globe by first-rate distributors, including indie powerhouse A24 in the United States.
The Hole in the Ground tells the story of young mother Sarah (Seána Kerslake) who has spirited her grade-school son Chris (James Quinn Markey) away from their abusive husband/father to live in a rambling, fixer-upper farmhouse on the outskirts of a folksy village so remote it doesn’t even have an address. In close proximity to their dilapidated home lies a sinkhole the size of a shopping mall that appears to be incrementally, barely perceptibly growing in diameter. Then Chris unaccountably disappears one evening into the adjacent forest, only to come back from his nocturnal walk in some kind of an altered state, in ways only a devoted parent would recognize. The changes are subtle enough to make us wonder if Sarah is losing her mind—at first. As Chris’s behavior grows more inexplicable and sinister, Sarah is in tandem driven to the brink of her sanity.
I understand that the idea for The Hole in the Ground was the result of several things coalescing, including a news item about a Florida man who fell into a sinkhole that opened up in his living room. At what point do you go from, “That’s a crazy thing to happen” to “Let’s center a film around this event”?
Right away, I knew there was a film idea in how reading that article made me feel. But I didn’t know what that film was. What caught my attention very simply was that this is a real thing that happened and it feels otherworldly in nature. It’s the same as crossing the road at the wrong time and getting hit by a bus. It sounds like a Final Destination moment. It felt too fantastical to be real. I’d heard of sinkholes, but I started to read up on it a little bit more for research. What I found was that there are either real stories, like a sinkhole in someone’s garden or subsiding land where it’s all very undramatic, or the crazy conspiracy theory end of things where people are talking about them being gateways to hell and trumpets from the devil, which is too far-fetched in the other direction. My mind was to respond somewhere in the middle, which is this place of doubt between something real and something that’s also otherworldly—how I thought about this Florida story. At the same time, I was working on this set of characters. I just had this idea of a mother and son relationship where they’re trying to rediscover each other’s trust after some trauma in their lives. The title was a part of it. The Hole in the Ground is a brave pitch and I could kind of see it on the side of a bus. I thought it was a big, blatant title. It all came together over the course of a year, although I wasn’t aggressively pushing, pushing, and pushing. It was one of those things that kept coming back into my imagination.
Sinkholes also turn my mind onto things like spontaneous human combustion.
It’s almost too good to be true. Even though it’s a negative thing, you’re like, “Wow, that exists in the world.” What I always think is that—even though I’m not a religious person—if these things are real, then maybe there are crazy things that we just don’t understand. Spontaneous human combustion—that’s a terrifying prospect, isn’t it? I think about things like that that really capture my attention as it follows: that guy sitting in his armchair in Florida and the earth opened up beneath him. What if he didn’t usually sit in that chair? What if he decided, “My back hurts. I’m going to lie on my sofa today.” What if he drinks too much water an hour before the incident and had to go for a piss? It all reflects that uncontrollable aspect of life. You can be walking down the road and something just goes pop in your brain. That happens. That’s what scares me. That’s where I find my horror, in those realities. So with situations that are actually more than just something biological or understandable—when it’s someone mysteriously catching on fire—that’s when I can fill in the gaps and say, “I can tell a story here.”
The best horror movies are so often metaphors for real-life horrors such as grief, addiction—STDs in the case of David Robert Michell’s It Follows. What did you intend for the sinkhole to represent in your film as telegraphed by Sarah?
Very simply, I wanted it to be a projection of what her future might be if she didn’t tackle the darkness. Sarah as a character is a strong person, but she hasn’t necessarily enacted all of her skills yet. I kind of looked at the people that I know in my life who have become single parents, both male and female, and how daunting the prospect of the future can be. I have so much respect for people who face off that darkness and rebuild their lives because I’m not a parent. I know a lot of people who have children and I have a lot of nieces and nephews. Looking at some of the challenges they face, I have huge respect for the effort it takes. At times, I think I’m too selfish a person to have children from that point-of-view so I see the selflessness of others, facing down realities and trying to raise other humans. On that level with Sarah, the sinkhole is something that represents the unknown for her, but it also slightly represents what she hasn’t tackled fully in her past, too, and it’s growing and building and spreading. On a more universal level, I remember speaking to a psychologist friend of mine when I was having doubts about the script: “I don’t know… A sinkhole…” She said, “A sinkhole is a terrifying thing because we don’t quite understand it and it represents potentially everybody’s greatest fear, which is just the unknown. What happens tomorrow?” For me right now, the film gets released in cinemas tomorrow and that’s my sinkhole. [Laughs] It’s the sinkhole that I’m standing on the edge of because, despite the positivity around the film, it’s the great unknown. We don’t know how it’s gonna go. We can all kind of identify with that.
I want to tread carefully with this next question as to not spoil anything. When Sarah unavoidably confronts her monster in the end, was that moment open for interpretation or did you intend for a very specific reading?
I wanted it to be a surprise, for sure, because I’m always looking for a way to engage an audience. It’s been great to observe the film with audiences and actually hear audible gasps in that moment because, despite everything that’s happening, I don’t think anybody sees Sarah’s final moments in the darkness coming. We’ll call it “phase three” so we don’t give anything away. For me, that moment was really about two things. I made a film where I didn’t want to give you a rule book. I didn’t want to give you A, B, C, and this is how it works. I just wanted you to have an experience watching it and I wanted you to have a claustrophobic experience when you’re doing that. At the very least, I wanted to give you a visual representation for how this works. It’s a plot point in some ways, but it’s equally also about metaphor. If you truly want to tackle your demons, sometimes you just have to look at yourself and find the strength within yourself because usually when you’re running away from something, it’s because you’re not facing the truth. So it’s a moment that I felt would work on two levels. For the people that are just enjoying it was a horror film thrill ride, great! Then for somebody who wants to engage with it on a deeper level, it has a metaphorical quality and they’re able to draw from that as well.
I know you rewrote Sarah’s character after casting Seána Kerslake. Just how drastic or subtle were the changes that you made? It always made more sense to me to exploit a cast actor’s strengths as you have done, as opposed to having very specific ideas when you’re initially writing. They often warn you about that because what you have in mind will probably not become a reality, obviously.
It’s a funny balancing game because you do find an increasing number of conversations in Hollywood about a project like, “Who’s in this role? Who’s in that role?” Sometimes I have answers, but generally, I try and just write the character and it continues to be a developing process, being as open-minded as possible. But the reality of moviemaking is where you need star power to help you get your movie made. That was less so with this movie. We didn’t need a name. Seána is a great local hero and she’s done some brilliant theater work abroad. I saw an opportunity to give her the platform. It wasn’t so much about me doing anything with her—it was just to give her the platform to show on the international stage what she can do. That was really important. To get more specific about your question, the character’s motivation didn’t change. Her heart didn’t change. She was always the slightly overprotective, anxious mother who’s trying to build a new world. It’s subtle in the film: the nature of being overprotective that’s always there. She doesn’t necessarily want the little boy to spread his wings, but on the very basic level, he’s changing anyway as any young kid would. It was less about speaking to Seána. It was more about observing her work and her ability to share her emotions without words. I guess one of the key things I did was removing about 30% of the dialogue in the film. It could’ve been simple stuff like when she makes a phone call to her friend, looking into her past, wondering if it was a good idea or not to maybe take medication. We had little scenes like that and in the end I said, “No, we can just have Sarah pondering that herself.” Seána is very good at that. We also added a bit of vulnerability in the character in terms of her status. She’s a younger mother with a little less experience. It’s not like she’s with three kids and she’s been through all of this before. This is fresh territory for her. Aging her down allowed me to make her vulnerable, which helps with the story.
There’s a scene where Chris performs “The Rattlin’ Bog” at school and it ends with him on the stage alone, ominously singing just to Sarah in an empty theater space. Your choice to employ fantasy in that moment, in Sarah’s reality—this is not a dream sequence—made that scene explode in my mind.
That scene is very close to how I wrote it. It was maybe written a touch more complex, but we actually ended up cutting it in a really simple way. It was probably one of the most challenging days we had to shoot because I had about a third of the time I felt I needed to shoot. I ended up with so little time that it was like shooting it live. I kept the camera rolling, instructing the actors as we were rolling. I just didn’t have time to cut. In terms of fantasy versus reality, I’ll give you an example. Some people talk about how exaggerated the sound design is in the film—the creeps, the pops, and the house. Some people love that. Other people think we’re really pushing that too far, too hard, but I don’t think so. That’s how Sarah feels in those moments. If you ever suffered from a panic attack or a moment of acute anxiety, somebody just opening the fridge door could grate through your mind and feel like the loudest, most intrusive thing in the world. So the sound design is a very basic example of something that I really wanted to do to get in her head. I think that gave me the license then to focus purely on one thing, which is Sarah’s greatest fear, even though of course the room is still populated with people and the rest of the choir is there. If you’re sitting in a room full of people at a party and a spider starts to crawl across the ceiling and you’re arachnophobic, all of your focus is now on that spider. Although it’s a fantasy moment where we seem to step out of reality, again, it’s Sarah’s perspective. That’s kind of why we opened the scene with this eruption of applause and she wakes up like she doesn’t even remember the previous minute or two of sitting there. As for me, I’ve been so preoccupied with the film at the moment that every time I leave my apartment, I’m halfway down the road wondering, “Did I even lock the front door?” That’s what I was trying to capture. It’s those distractions. If those distractions are terrifying and major worries, the world around you can fade easily into the background.
When there’s a creature involved, you’re inevitably gonna be working out questions about how to reveal it and what it might look like. John Krasinski was recently talking about how he removed the creature from the ending of A Quiet Place initially because he thought it would work against the familial drama he had set up. Susanne Bier included her monster in Bird Box until she played it back for people and they started laughing. You obviously have to play that card right. So were you pretty set from the beginning on how to show your monster, when to show it, and how much of it to show?
The truthful answer is probably not how you’re constantly debating how to play that card. Early drafts of the script didn’t include that element of the story at all. I’ve done this with all of my works actually, even in my short films. I’ll be resistant to go there, but ultimately, the genre fan inside me wants to be that audience member. I also want to deliver for people. Interestingly, it’s something I really worried that I would get criticized for. You might get somebody that talks about that not being their thing or someone else saying how much they love it. I tried to show as little as possible in the end. There’s also a monstrous force in the film that remains somewhat undefined and, essentially, personal to Sarah in a lot of ways. The thing that I always gripped onto for myself was that, whatever way I chose to play them, the rule is always: don’t show the monster too late, and when you do show it, show as little as possible. In a lot of respects, I do that. But equally through psychology and story, I present the monster to you within the first 15 or 20 minutes, and I give it to you in full broad daylight in lots of shots. It’s just that it happens to look like an 8-year-old boy. That’s the essential thing in the film: is he a monster or is there just something wrong with this kid? So it’s right there for us to see from the get-go. Then I guess I have to kind of reveal a little more when you get into those darker spaces.
It’s interesting that so many of us grew up consuming the horror genre, even if we don’t end up making horror films or continue watching them with the same kind of voracious appetite into adulthood. It’s like we all did it because it was taboo and we watched them when we were at our most impressionable, which makes a huge impact. Were you watching horror movies as a kid thinking, “I want to make scary movies”?
There are two phases to it for me. I was in the 6, 8, 9, 10 zone when I first experienced horror movies. There’s a big gap between me and my siblings by about 9 years. When they were like 15 or 16 and being those teenagers watching taboo horror movies, their little kid brother is also being pulled into that environment. Certainly before 9 years old, I’d seen The Shining, Jaws, Evil Dead, Poltergeist—things that make a major impression on you. It’s funny because, with all of this discussion around the film, what I’m realizing more and more is that, when you’re the youngest in the family, you spend a lot of time observing other people’s behavior and people who are more mature and advanced than you. Now I look back at how my siblings or the people around me would react to and have fun with those scary moments. A Nightmare on Elm Street is a prime example. I remember one of my sisters or brothers watching that in school like at a study hall thing and they came home absolutely fucking terrified. I remember going, “Oh my god, I need to see this thing that scared them so much.” When you’re the youngest, you also end up slightly being the joker and the clown in the family to have a voice, and I think that’s the same with horror. I saw an opportunity to scare people. Then there was a whole era where all I was interested in life was football. [Laughs] The film that pulled me right back into horror was Scream.
Scream was life-changing for me as well.
I just remember there were a couple of girls in my class that I was good friends with and they were just going on about this movie Scream that they had seen. They had seen it right at the tail end of its theatrical run and it was gone. When it came out on VHS, I remember I used to leave it playing in my bedroom. If I was plottering around doing something else, I would have Scream on a loop in the background just playing all the time. So that movie brought me back. It became our own horror experience of that era, even though I’m not necessarily a huge slasher fan. That moment is when my filmmaking career really started. I bought a cam recorder and did crazy special effects experiments. The first short film that I attempted to make was a really pretentious black-and-white thing called Say a Prayer for the Kids of America, which made no sense. The title was based on the end credits of Scream and the song “Youth of America.” So yeah, Scream was the turning point in my adolescence and growing up and wanting to make movies. I remember being obsessed with getting my hands on the mask and I couldn’t find it in Ireland to buy. Then I was in the UK and managed to find one. I haven’t said this in any other interview I just realized. Scream was the big turning point. That’s when I started as a filmmaker.
I relate to that so much. Although I grew up watching a lot of movies as a kid because my dad was a huge cinephile, I didn’t want to make films myself until I saw Scream. I would visit the local video store every day to see when the movie poster would be coming down so I could potentially have it.
I actually got the poster from my local video store as well. I remember when they were renovating the store I managed to convince them to give me their wall racks, which I hung up in my bedroom. I had my own VHS collection of all these horror movies and ex-rental copies. Then I later ended up working at that video store. It’s the film geek story.
I checked out Ghost Train the other day. You have a knack for creating somber mood and atmosphere. Do you identify as a predominantly horror filmmaker?
I’ve done three shorts. The first and third were horror: Through the Night and Ghost Train. The middle one, Billy & Chuck, is a kind of fantasy-adventure. As much as I’m a horror fan, I’m also a child of Amblin in a lot of ways. I guess most people of our generation are. When I was in film school, I was mainly making observational comedies. I do find that I’m a little bit more drawn to the cinematic tools you get from horror in terms of tension. Ultimately, I’m probably a bit more of a thriller person. I’d be very happy obviously directing a movie like Se7en or Prisoners by Denis Villanueve or something in that kind of space. I absolutely adore those movie types. Even with The Hole in the Ground, I still do try on a couple of occasions to have little jokes and moments of levity. I don’t know how other countries are because I haven’t been to a funeral in another country, but in Ireland, funerals usually last a couple of days and there are a lot of inappropriate jokes and a hell of a lot of bullshit. It’s the Irish psyche that, even in the darkest of times, we can crack a joke. In The Hole in the Ground, the moment before the school hall with the “la-la-la” moment where the kid is singing and combing his hair, I did telegraph that to be ever so slightly comedic because it’s ludicrous and coming off the back of this very intense spell in the film—a borderline wordless montage for about 7 or 8 minutes of tension. I’m not a huge fan of horror that’s totally doom and gloom all the way. I still like to draw a little bit of entertainment and thrill ride out wherever possible. Ghost Train is probably a little more somber than The Hold in the Ground, although, again, early on we try and crack a little bit of levity between the brothers when they talk. I don’t know if I’ll direct a comedy movie, but I’ll certainly use some of the tools I’ve developed to keep some humanity and levity where I could.
In the Collider interview you gave on-camera at Sundance this year, you mentioned completing the full-length screenplay for Ghost Train. Are you moving forward with that as your sophomore feature?
No, I don’t think that’s going to be number two. I have a supernatural thriller called Box of Bones and I think I would like to make that next. All I’ll say about that is: The Hole in the Ground is my take on the monster movie and this is my supernatural ghost story. It feels like the right movie because, again, it’s something I’m really interested in thematically. It’s another analysis of a damaged relationship and it’s another analysis of the challenges of trust. I won’t give too much away about Box of Bones, but it’s about a couple that are trying to rebuild their relationship after a life-changing accident. I find that to be a really interesting space: trying to find trust again, and who can you trust? It’s quite intriguing to me. It’s set in a very, very snowy place like at higher latitudes in Canada or Alaska. So that feels naturally like film two, but you just never know actually with all films in this business. Ghost Train is developmentally just a little bit of a longer curve for me at the moment.