Son – Interview with Film Writer/Director Ivan Kavanagh

Interview with Filmmaker Ivan Kavanagh

Son is a 2021 horror-thriller film that follows a mother fighting to protect her son from a cult conspiracy, physical illness, and evil itself.

The writer/director of Son, Ivan Kavanagh spoke with Borrowing Tape writer Nace DeSanders on various elements of the filmmaking process. The film is now available to watch via VOD and digital platforms now.

Listen to the podcast episode and read the interview transcript, which has been edited and condensed for clarity:
Hey, hey everyone. This is Borrowing Tape. I'm Nace DeSanders and I am here with Ivan Kavanagh, the director of the horror, thriller, Son. Son is a story of a mother with an abusive past who goes to desperate lengths to protect her son from the various forms of evil after him. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Ivan.

You're welcome. Glad to be here.

Where did you get the idea for this story?

Well, the idea started when my first son was born about five years ago. He had a very, very difficult birth, and we were very worried about him for a few months. And we had a lot of sleepless nights. But, I saw during that time, how close my wife and son were growing - that mother-son bond. And it was very, very strong. And then I, as a writer, I started to think about how far would a mother go to protect that son she loves, you know, what wouldn't she do to protect him?  Is there anything that she wouldn't do? And that got me started on the writing. So, during those sleepless nights, with the baby crying and in between feeding him, I started to jot down ideas for the script. So that's how it came to me.

There are some very tastefully handled sexual themes in this film. Could you tell us a bit about your approach to introducing these themes, to the story?

Well, with horror films, you can explore very difficult themes through genre. So what seems like a genre element, can carry you through these very difficult themes. Horror has always been like that — you can really deal with these in a very abstract way, which is why I love horror films so much — it gives you so much leeway. There is no subject you can't tackle or no subject to big or small, you cannot tackle what a horror film, I think, you know, because it's so abstract, because you can push really push boundaries, and because the message of horror films are sometimes so subtle — it just creeps in throughout it. And this film, I mean, on the page, it seems to be about demons and devils, but the real evil in this story, are the people on what they've done, you know?

Motherhood can be considered a subgenre of horror at this point. What special sauce does Son bring to this subgenre?

Well in Son, it came from a very personal place, So for me, that was the only reason.  I didn't think I'll make... I want to make a film of this subgenre. I'm not sure I was even aware of them. For me, it just came from that very organic, very personal place. And I suppose when you think about it, you have Rosemary's Baby. Can't think of any others, but I'm sure there's a thousand of them, but you're right. It is a good sub-genre, I suppose because the bond is so close. I think what makes this different though, is that perhaps the son is the threat in this. It's usually about a mother trying to protect a son and it still is about that. But the son maybe the bad guy in this film, but we just don't know, you know?

When casting a mother and son as central protagonists, what kind of work goes into creating that like warmth or chemistry between that?

Casting is most of the work of a director, I mean, casting is the most important part of the film. So, I usually spend a long, long time casting. Andi Matichak — I had seen her in the Halloween film, I thought she was great. And then when I met her, I usually go on instinct rather than auditions or anything like that. And once I talked to her, I knew she was perfect for the part. And then, the hunt was on to find the right boy. And I didn't want the typical movie kid. I wanted a kid that seemed like a real child. And so we did auditions for about 4 or 500 kids, and it was really late in the process. I think we were only two weeks from choosing when we found Luke and he was just... there was no break from on-camera and off-camera, it was just so natural. It was just amazing. And then when I had him read with Andi, and immediately I could see the spark between them. And then another method I do as well, is I give all of the actors a character history. I give the history of the character from the time the character was born, to when the movie starts. So, they know everything about their character from the time we start filming. And what I do is I sit them down and I interview them as they're in the characters, and I had Andi and the boy interviewed together on already to chemistry. And then I knew these two are perfect together, amazing and off camera, they weren't acting like there was no break. They loved each other off-camera, as well as on-camera. And they were joking on camera and off camera. It was so great. It was amazing to see and Luke is just, yeah. I mean, he so natural, he's just an incredible young actor — amazing.

When it works, it works.

Yeah. Absolutely.

Film still from Son (2021)
How did you and cinematographer Piers McGrail decide on the film’s aesthetic? Specifically the use of neons in those nighttime scenes?

Oh yeah. Well, I grew up on American movies, especially movies from the seventies. One thing I always remember from movies from the seventies, is I know it seems real, exotic, and American to me is that neon. I remember it even in black and white, it works — even in Psycho. I remember that amazing shot that Hitchcock cuts to the neon sign lighting up in and the one in the rain, as well in Psycho, and also in Taxi Driver, all those neon signs of the diners and stuff. But not only that I wanted those rich primary colors, like you see in films from the seventies. So what we did was we use lenses, Panavision lenses from the seventies, and we put those on the Alexa camera. So it really brought out the colors. And then we brought out the colors even more in post as well. Another thing I wanted to do, I wanted this film to go from the structure of it, to go from a kind of Norman Rockwell view of America, like "seems perfect, this life they have", and then she descends into this Taxi Driver version of America. So it goes from upper middle class to the underclass, and it shows all sides of America, I think. That's where the neon came from and we had hundreds and hundreds of these reference photographs that we found from different movies and stuff.

One thing me and Piers do is we plan every single shot in the film. I mean, every shot you see in the film, there isn't nothing on the cutting room floor. That is the film that we shot. So, if there's two shots in the film, they're the only two shots we shot. I mean, pretty much we're editing in the camera. But yeah, we planned it down to a T. It was just that neon. Yeah. I'm glad you picked up on that because that was a huge aspect for me. And it came up in the budget negotiations as well, because they wanted to cut it because the neon was so expensive. But I said, no, I've always imagined the neon signs in this film. It has to be that, it has to be that. So I'm glad we got it in.

Yeah. It really stood out. It looked great. I noticed it right away from that opening scene when the main character is driving down, I was like, okay, this looks cool.

Amazing, amazing. Thanks.

Which films or directors have influenced you as a filmmaker, but also the film, Son?

Oh well I mean, I suppose it's too many to count. My favorite directors are... I love Ingmar Bergman, he's my favorite director. I'm actually living in Sweden now. I'm not that far from where he used to live and work. And my wife is Swedish. I'm not saying it's the most perfect film in the world, but a film I've watched more than any others is Martin Scorsese's, After Hours — I think it's a perfect movie. I learned so much from that. I must have watched it 300 times. I love that film so much. I learned everything about editing from that film. It's just amazing, the atmosphere. I love David Lynch as well. With his movies are particularly like Fire Walk With Me, the Twin Peaks movie he made. I love Pasolini as well, the Italian director. I mean, it's endless, but for some, to be honest with you, I wasn't watching that many movies when I was writing it because I was taking care of the baby. So if anyone, if you probably know yourself, if you have a kid, if anyone has a kid, they know what it's like, you just too exhausted to concentrate on anything, you know? So at the time, I wasn't watching anything, but I'm sure the influences are 200 films from my entire life, but I can't pinpoint them for this film really, you know? Yeah.

So, you have written and directed all of your films. Do you prefer the freedom of making your own work, or would you like to partner with someone in the future?

Well, for the first time, I'm writing an eight-part TV series and just almost finished writing the outlines on the first two scripts. For that. I partnered up with a writer called Sally Tatchell on that. So that's for MGM and then  I've written a script and called Vengeance with Jon Bassoff, he's a crime novelist. So these are the first two collaborators, writing-wise I've ever worked with and it's been great to be perfect. So I'm thinking maybe I should have done it before, you know? But yeah, I mean, if the right script came along. Sure. I'd jump at the chance, I'm offered scripts a lot, but nothing I'm that passionate about. And after The Canal came out, my first horror film, I was offered a couple of really big films and they went on to be pretty big, but I turned them down because I didn't really connect with them. But I'm always living in hope of that great script coming along different by someone else, but I haven't seen it yet.

Film still from Son (2021)
This is your first film to take place in the United States. You are currently in Sweden...

No, it's the first film to be shot in the United States, but my previous one Never Grow Old was a Western, which was set in the United States but was actually shot in Ireland and Luxembourg, which is funny.

Yes, you're right. My bad, so it's your first film to be shot in the United States, why made you want to shoot in the U.S.?

Why? Well, it just feels, it feels like all the times I've been here, it feels like it's so vast. It feels like anything can happen there, you know? So no matter how fantastical the story, if it doesn't feel out of place America, you know. Whereas in Ireland and where I'm from, everything's really small, everyone knows everyone else. So really, just say you were a making film about a werewolf in Ireland. Well, you probably know the fellow who was the werewolf because you know everyone there, but in America, you can get away with it because it's so vast, it's just the possibilities just seem endless. And also, because I grew up on American movies, I kind of feel like I knew it before I visited it. It seems to me, we shot in Mississippi, everywhere I turned the camera seemed like cinematic to me and exotic. So that's the reason, there's endless possibilities there.

Yeah. I love that. So how did you figure out what you wanted to specialize in? Do you always know or...?

Oh, well, I mean the first few of the films I made were family dramas, art house films, but they were, I made a film called The Fading Light, which got me noticed the festivals and stuff,  which was about a very personal film, about a mother dying of cancer. And I was a little bit like Bergman's, Cries and Whispers. It was very graphic and there was elements of horror, but real-life horror. It was a very personal family film, you know? And the films, I remember loving and staying with me were mostly horror movies growing up. I remember when I was seven years old, I had a fever and I woke up and I went down the stairs to my mother and father, and they were watching a movie and it was the end of Rosemary's Baby, that scene where she looks in the crib and she says, "What have you done to his eyes?" And I was only seven years old, but that shot of her putting her hand to her mouth and saying, what have you done, stayed with me my entire life. When I started making films, I started to think, God, the power of cinema, the power of those... that horror movie.  Me and my sister used to watch rent, horror movies with my younger sister, from the local video store. And I don't know, there were ones I always enjoyed and I seem to have a feel for it, and also, like I said earlier on, anything is possible horror movies. You can be subversive as you want. You can create a whole world, your whole universe dripping with atmosphere and, and push sound design to its breaking point. Almost. It just seems endless possibilities.

Are you working on anything else?

Yeah, I mean I have a film just coming out. I mentioned it earlier, but I'll tell you a bit more about it. It's a Neo-Noir called Vengeance with Jon Bassoff, the crime writer, and there's a lot of black comedy. It's very violent again, it's set in America and it's just gone out for financing. We just got word that a pretty big actor is interested. So I'm hoping that we'll come get a pretty quick, I know this is the TV series and I'm also, I've just finished a draft of a horror movie set in Ireland in the 17th century. It's based on an actual case of witchcraft from the 17th century. So, and I'm looking forward to finishing that one and a few other stuff I'm mulling over as well.

Related: Review of Son

Watch Son now via Amazon