- Film & TV
- 28 Feb 20
Having served his creative apprenticeship in Charlie Brooker's production company, Irish director Lorcan Finnegan is earning rave reviews for Vivarium, a darkly funny sci-fi tale about suburban malaise.
Mark our words: Lorcan Finnegan is the next big thing. The director of the highly acclaimed sci-fi horror-drama Vivarium, which has received rave reviews worldwide and opens the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival this year, Finnegan is determined to make thought-provoking movies about issues he cares about. And along the way, he wants to both entertain and unnerve audiences.
After studying graphic design in Dun Laoghaire, Finnegan got an animating job in Zeppotron, Charlie Brooker’s comedy-focused production company, before beginning to make his own short films. Zeppotron’s surreal comedy style greatly appealed to Finnegan, who cites Chris Morris’ Brass Eye, Armando Iannucci’s Time Trumpet and Big Train as formative influences. But he was also always drawn to horror, saying, “I see them as connected. They’re both about the inexplicable – you don’t know why you laugh at things, and you don’t know when you’re afraid of things.”
This attraction to, and appreciation for, often mutually exclusive genres adds to the unique tone of the genre-bending Vivarium. Starring Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg as a young couple looking to buy their first home, they go to visit a brand new housing estate – but something’s wrong. The streets are all eerily identical and soulless, the houses all painted the same sickly green. But when the couple try to leave, they find themselves trapped in a Kafka-esque nightmare, endlessly lopping back to the same house, unable to leave. There’s no exit, no discernible weather, no other people. Packages arrive at their door filled with tasteless, vacuum-packed food. And one day, they discover a baby in a box with the instructions “raise the child and be released”. What follows is bleak, strange, disturbing – and yes, darky funny.
“The whole thing, I find, is a big, weird, dark joke,” says Finnegan, before adding, “Life in general, I mean!”
After Finnegan cast Imogen Poots, she sent the script to her friend Jesse Eisenberg, who was immediately interested – though Finnegan admits it took him a while to understand the famously sardonic actor’s sense of humour.
“We arranged to have a call, and I was a bit nervous,” he acknowledges. “It’s a bit weird to talk to an actor you don’t know at all on the phone – even having their number in your phone is ridiculous! But he was being kind of funny in a very dry, sarcastic way, and I wasn’t sure if he was trying to be funny or if he was just weird! So it took me a while to get to know him. But he and Imogen are both really funny, and the atmosphere on set was surprisingly light, we had a good laugh between scenes.”
The idea for Vivarium has been brewing for years, and Finnegan’s interest in capitalism, Ireland’s tumultuous relationship with home ownership, and our disconnect from nature was evident in his early work. One of his early animated shorts, Defaced, saw a man in a bank’s poster ad for mortgages falling for a stencil of a girl on a wall of graffiti.
“On the poster, it said ‘Get A Life, Get A Mortage’,” recalls Finnegan. “Do you remember for a while they were really pushing house ownership down our throats, and you were made to feel like if you didn’t have a mortgage, or if you weren’t on the property ladder, you were a failure?” (We all do, yes.)
Later, Finnegan teamed up with writer Garret Shanley to make the 2011 short Foxes, a supernatural film set in an Irish ghost estate, about both the economic collapse and our relationship with nature. As the housing crisis escalated, Finnegan realised there was more to be excavated.
“Foxes felt very specific with the ghost estates, but with Vivarium, we were thinking on a very universal level and in the sci-fi world,” he notes. “Thinking what if one of these places went on forever and didn’t have any nature, at all. Like, what if we remove ourselves completely from the natural world into this place where everything’s completely identical? That led both to the look of the film, and the examination of the homogeneity of society’s expectations of what a ‘successful’ life looks like.”
Finnegan’s background in art also shaped the uncanny look of the film, where identical fluffy clouds hang in an unmoving sky, and an artificial sun beams down slightly uncanny light. Drawing on Magritte, Edward Hopper and light installation artist Olafur Eliasson – as well as “the specific housing developments that were springing up around Leitrim and Carlow, and a child’s drawing of a house” – Finnegan wanted to create a world where “it’s like the people who designed the place don’t get it quite right. They’re offering what it appears people want, but in fact they’ve missed the point, and offer none of the things humans actually need or want in order to have a nice life.”
The deliberately ambiguous film has received rave reviews at international film festivals, and Finnegan has been amused to hear audiences’ interpretations of it, which range from a comment on gender dynamics, to immigration, to a morality tale about empathy.
“That’s what I love about filmmaking,” he says. “Especially when you’re working on things that can be experienced differently by different people. And different cultures take different things from it. We’ve been showing it in loads of different countries over the last while. A guy in Korea came up to my, crying, saying it made him think about how hard his parents had to work to make sure he had a nice life. I’ll be really interested to see what Irish people take from it, as it stems from things that began here.”
Next up for Finnegan is Noecebo, “a supernatural thriller that kind of explores things around exploitation of the East by the West and the fast fashion industry.” He’s determined to keep making films about causes he believes in, which could hopefully inspire change.
“Films are kind of our collective unconscious become manifest. They’re interpretations of what’s going on, our experiences and concerns. So I absolutely think films have the ability to make people think about the world differently.”
There is a pipeline for successful male indie directors, who often get snapped up for big blockbusters – think Gareth Edwards jumping from the indie Monsters to Godzilla and Rogue One, or Marc Webb moving from (500) Days Of Summer to The Amazing Spider-Man. Is getting to direct big-budget popcorn flicks the dream?
“I find that really weird,” Finnegan remarks, shaking his head. “It’s almost the idea we look at in Vivarium: ‘You should have this kind of a life.’ With directors, there’s almost a pyramid of success where if you get to the top, you get to do Marvel movies. Fuck that! I do TV commercials, and that’s enough of that. Because that’s what they are – they’re spending $200 million and you’re just helping them make a product. It’s like they’re getting a visionary director to do something new with the next Spider-Man. Or they get young directors who are naïve and hopeful, and just milk them of all their creative juices, before throwing them on the trash heap with PTSD. Films are so difficult and take so long, I need something that I’m really interested in and passionate about to keep me going. I’ve got three other films in the works, so I’m good for now.”
He pauses – perhaps jokily, perhaps not – contemplating those Marvel paycheques. “But you never know!”
• Vivarium opens VDIFF on February 26, with tickets available on DIFF.ie. The movie hits cinemas on March 27.