‘Eli’ Director Ciaran Foy: The Horror News Network Interview

by Jay Kay

Currently out on Netflix is Ciaran Foy’s thriller, Eli. Smart, emotional, and deeply haunting, Foy brings to life a tale about a family whose child cannot interact with the atmosphere around him. Wrapped in a protective bubble for as long as he can remember, Eli (Charlie Shotwell) may have found a chance to be treated for this deadly condition. His parents, played by Kelly Reilly and Max Martini, have come to the lab of the mysterious Dr. Horn (Lili Taylor). As Dr. Horn and Eli’s parents move him through each stage of this experimental treatment, things just don’t seem like they all add up. Between a presence that is revealing itself in the house, Dr. Horn’s past, and a friend who sits outside Eli’s chamber window, Eli’s world will change forever. Blending a creative score, impressive lighting, connecting themes, and a series of standout performances within a narrative that has not only some well-crafted twists but also one of the most impressive death sequences in a long time, Eli is one of the surprising and potent genre films in 2019. Taking some time to speak with Horror News Network, Ciaran Foy opens up to Jay Kay about the film’s different elements.

Horror News Network: Thank you Ciaran for taking the time to talk your latest Eli here on HNN. For you, children seem to be a common theme for your genre storytelling with previous films like Citadel and Sinister 2. Why are children such sources for horror storytelling?

Ciaran Foy: I guess children and horror have been a staple of the genre even in the original Grimm’s fairytales. Those stories were seen as a kind of entertaining education tool about the real world and the monsters were symbols for different things within this world and how to navigate them.  Things to be feared or fascinated by. I think all great horror is kind of about something else and through the eyes of a child, we get to see an untainted and innocent look at the world filled with any possibility.


 Horror News Network: Can you talk about casting Eli and how Charlie dealt with the physicality of his role?

Ciaran Foy: I remember saying early on that the film would live or die based on whomever we got to play the title role. He’s in almost every scene and he holds the weight of the whole thing on his shoulders. I saw a lot of potential candidates for Eli, but when my casting director sent me a self tape Charlie had made, I knew straight away he was the guy.

In terms of physicality, I wanted Charlie to have one physicality for being ill, and another for later in the movie. So, he worked for a few days with Terry Notary, a movement coach who worked on Avatar and Planet of the Apes and things like that, just to have different language and posture for his two sates of being. Everything from walking to head turns to facial expression.


 Horror News Network: Can you talk about the relationship between the parents Rose & Paul? How did you form the reality in their marriage?

Ciaran Foy: Well, there’s a fracture there from the very beginning, a crack in their relationship that just widens as the movie goes on because everyone is lying to someone. It’s all about lies!  We talked about how they might have met? How they found Dr Horn? What they hoped to achieve? Ultimately, everyone thinks they’re doing the right thing from their point of view.  (Spoilers to follow here) We said that Paul is being distant because he’s saying goodbye.  He’s letting go. He knows the truth. Not all of the patients that come here, leave. But this is for the better and he could never have said that to Rose, or she would never have agreed to come. So, he’s trying to disengage from Eli. In contrast, optimist Rose sees this but doesn’t understand why, she’s there under the assumption that this doctor has cured all of her patients.


 Horror News Network: What intangible did Lili Taylor bring to this film?

Ciaran Foy: I remember saying to Lili that in an ideal world, Dr. Horn would be sweet and attentive, but also cold and menacing at the same time. Dr. Horn is a professional, she knows these children don’t know what they are, so there’s a real and fearful child there that she has some empathy for, but she’s also aware of what they really are, and that part disturbs her. So, what I asked for was a pure contradiction and yet Lili said, ‘I got this.’ In the end, she gave the most fascinating Mona Lisa smile of a performance where it is in fact both things and one would disappear if you looked for it. She was literally both warm and cold as Dr. Horn and sometimes at the exact same time, then nothing but warmth and a joy to work with when the cameras stopped rolling.


 Horror News Network: How much scientific research was brought into the design of the house and lab?

Ciaran Foy: We shot in New Orleans. During the prep, Production Designer Bill Boes and myself got to visit some actual clean rooms at Tulane University. So, we got to see what a real one looked like and how it’s filtered and how the air purification works etc. We knew if we went with an authentic clean house look, the movie would feel brighter and more sterile and science fiction looking. Bill rightly pointed out that none of these patients truly require a clean house.  It’s all a placebo. It’s all a lie. If they think the water is pure and the air is clean, they’ll be fine.  We supposed the building was actually an old convent.  The operating room was once the chapel in this convent and so those shapes are present in the architecture, although hopefully not too overtly obvious. We imaged they glassed off large sections and retro fitted a certain part to appear how it appears and allow them to do their blend of gene therapy with Christian modifications. So, we had license to blend the world of an actual clean house with that of what was an older convent.


 Horror News Network: What changes did you suggest from the original script?

Ciaran Foy: Not a lot. It was such a great script and the skeleton of the whole thing and the great twist was there from the beginning. However, knowing we couldn’t spoil the third act, I wanted a few more ‘ trailer moments’. One of my contributions was the visual idea of breath and condensation and the word ELI becoming LIE and that LIE became a visual rhyme that in turn became a code 317. I came up with the ‘ghost fight,’ where they are pulling him to the decontamination chamber. A few other visual things and the ‘blow out your candles / let’s make a wish’ calming mechanism, and the rhyme that Eli and Mom use. I also injected the character of Haley with some wry Irish sardonicism!


Horror News Network: What does Bear McCreary’s score bring to this project?

Ciaran Foy: I didn’t want Eli to just have a creepy tonal score.  I wanted melody and something you could potentially hum. In many ways this movie is the birth of a character. So, I suggested we take three notes, for E L I, and play with that. We would play it backwards and upside down, but that it’s a melody trying to break free. Trying to become what it wants to become and only allowing that at the end.  Bear ran with that and did something amazing. He gave it an emotional core. I love the theme he has for Eli and Mom. Bear allowed the music to go on the same emotional arc as the character. From a repressed and subdued state, to one that is free and operatic.


 Horror News Network: Can you talk about the way you shot the ‘treatment lab’ versus the rest of the house?

Ciaran Foy: We shot more looser, handheld in the lab and on slightly wider lenses, staying close to Eli so we could live in it with him. We shot scenes where he felt ‘safe’, ironically when he was being lied to, from a distance, on longer lenses, and more locked off.  We imaged the real Eli lived somewhere in between, so by the end we were shooting on more mid-range focal lengths, handheld but not noticeably so. It had a confident life to it but wasn’t unnerving.


 Horror News Network: Did your DP’s genre film experience on projects like Orphan, the Nightmare on Elm St remake, and 10 Cloverfield Lane, affect how the horror was captured? 

Ciaran Foy: Jeff Cutter loves to reference photography more than other movies and certainly not his previous movies. I also didn’t want him to replicate anything he had done before. I knew he could light for darkness incredibly well and that he knew the language of horror, but we didn’t reference other horror films. I’ve found when I do that, I can’t shake that derivative feeling from the visual style. It’s never allowed to become its own thing the way the thing I was referencing has, and I wanted Eli to feel unique. It’s not a brooding, earnest, art house horror, and it’s also not some super light “goose bumping” fare either. It’s dark and twisted but it’s fun too. So, it ought to look and sound a way that makes sense from a story as well as a theme point of view first.


 Horror News Network: Can you talk about the impact of isolation throughout the story?

Ciaran Foy: We specifically didn’t want to say where the story was set, or even when.  I wanted to put us in the mindset of the child. We were going somewhere, and it looked isolated with nowhere to run. To add to this, he can’t leave the house, or he’ll die. The only way out, is to face what’s inside. Literally and metaphorically. Eli is truly all alone, especially as he begins to realize that all authority figures have been lying and deceiving him. He has been told that his true self and the world is something to be feared. When in fact the adults feared the world from him.


Horror News Network: The death sequence of the three women in the final act, is one of my favorite kills in a long time. Was this sequence originally in the script, and how challenging was it, to be able to visually bring this to life?

Ciaran Foy: It was always written as the nurses circling the room as upside-down crosses who eventually burst into flames. It was a challenge to block and stage became there was dialogue while all this was happening. I also didn’t want Eli and Mom to be just standing or sitting there while all this craziness was happening around them. As a visual rhyme, I have a lot of things going full circles and things going “upside down” throughout the movie, so I came up with the idea of Mom and Eli moving counterclockwise to the rotation of the nurses. We had to devise a lighting rig on a huge circular track that could rotate behind our performers to provide both shadow and fire effect (amber light) as the nurses go by. Meanwhile a Steadicam circled the performer in the opposite direction.  Everyone got a bit dizzy doing several takes of this!


Horror News Network: Thanks for your time Ciaran. Best of luck with Eli.

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