Lord of Film – an interview with Randal Plunkett

Randal PlunkettRandal Plunkett, the 21st Lord Dunsany, is an award winning director and producer hailing from one of the oldest and most prominent families in Ireland, the Plunketts. From a young age Randal was brought up surrounded by culture which has heavily influenced him to create the complex characters found in his films. He studied film at Kingston University in London and then moved on to study digital media and digital video at SAE in Amsterdam and in London. He currently works as CEO of Dunsany Productions, an Irish film company based in Co. Meath, Ireland.

Tell me a little-known fact about Randal Plunkett.

A lot of people don’t know that when I finished my film degree; I came back to Ireland to help my mum look after my father who was suffering from a neurological condition. While helping my parents run their estate, the future of my career looked bleak for the film industry because my estate needed constant attention and so did my father. So I started a very different career in sport science through the ISSA, with the idea to create a career as a personal trainer or perhaps open up my own gyms here in Ireland. Although my parents were very encouraging, they thought my talent would be wasted. Being that my father was in the arts, he felt that it was his duty to encourage me anyway he could to keep me in film. He was not well and didn’t have any connection with the film industry himself. He pushed me anyway he could, which in this case was to go to Europe to study digital video at SAE in Amsterdam. He figured that once I got a taste of making a film myself, the addiction would be too great to ever think about having a normal career. He was right and here I am now.

It’s terrific to have the encouragement of one’s parents. Were there any others who helped or inspired you to a career in film?

I used to go to a really posh international school in Switzerland (I was very bad at school, I must add). I was extremely dyslexic and eventually they asked me to leave as they were adopting a new curriculum and they didn’t want myself and others lowering their school average. Anyway, that’s another story. But my dad was not upset, instead he found me a great college to go to in Oxford. There I got the support I needed to make the grade and my academics flourished. I started doing classics, civilizations, English literature and sociology.

My Sociology teacher was called Louise Longson. I had great talks with her in class. She was a wild teacher, who lived the life of rock roll when she was a student!! She used to tell me about all her adventures going to rock concerts and crazy parties. One day, I came into the classroom and I noticed that on the board behind her was a reference to French new wave cinema. And to her surprise, I had a very good discussion about it. This was all because when I was five, I lived in America. My dad was an extremely cultured man and so the notion of his son watching rubbish American TV was too much for him. So my father used to go down the street to the video rental store and rent all these wonderful classic films from Europe. The deal was, I was allowed to rent cartoons so long as I watched one piece of cultural cinema beforehand. It wasn’t long before cartoons were put aside and it become all cultural. My personal favourite film that my dad showed me was ‘Le Ballon Rouge’ by Albert Lamorisse. There actually came a time where I rented that film every weekend for a year!!!! It was the most tragic story I had ever seen. I spent days crying over the kids balloon!!!

Getting back to the original question, being that I had the opportunity from a young age to be exposed to so much quality cinema; I had developed a very wide spectrum of film taste. I was able to hold my own in a discussion with my teacher, over her notes on the board. Her face dropped and by the end of class she had convinced me to switch courses to film, which she also taught. Finally, I had found something I actually enjoyed learning about. In fact I even enjoyed studying! As much as I thought I knew about cinema; Louise Longson opened my eyes to some new titles I had not seen before. These were films like ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ and Dario Argento’s ‘Susperia’. These films later become big influences on me and my career and my movies to date. So I think my professor Louise Longson would need to be mentioned as a big influencer.

Describe the type/genre of films you are making currently.

I tend to spend a lot of time cooking up dark macabre story lines in my castle; so it tends to be a great deal of horror. As you can imagine, living in a place as remote and dark tends to lead one’s mind to strange unusual places. But I must say, I try very hard to create something a little different in my films. I always try and bring beauty to the screen as much I can. The horror genre is very open when it comes to independent films, it is one of the few genres where cheap and tackiness can be a benefit to a film. I try as best I can, to not fall into the trap of creating low brow entertainment because I feel the stories I wish to tell have importance and its not about throwing blood all over the place. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of those kind of films but I feel that to create something so simple which deals with a subject at face value is perhaps too easy for me. I feel the need to de-construct everything I do and create story lines based on metaphor. Every film I make is full of hidden messages and sub texts below the surface. Take ‘Out There’ for example; on the surface it is a zombie film, but it isn’t. The zombies are just a product of the environment, in order to create a visual medium for me to discuss what I really want to express in the film. It explores my personal fear of responsibility and growing up. Very recently, my father died leaving me the responsibility of protecting Dunsany Castle and its lands from becoming another fossil of what it used to represent. There is a huge amount of pressure and self-sacrifice to this. We are now the oldest family in Ireland, the last of the Norman families who are still where they landed nearly a 1000 years ago. I must carry on and protect my heritage. The zombies in this film where my representation of my struggle to protect it. The relationship between the two characters, are also full of hidden meanings. For example; in the first scene where you see the beautiful actress Emma Eliza Regan in the garden, it looks like a paradise full of white flowers. The garden represents the beauty of what I am fortunate to be part of. The next scene we see  her in is the bathroom under candle light. She is in the bath and she tells Marren’s character that she is Emma Eliza Reganpregnant. This was also no accident, Emma Eliza Regan (pictured) in the bath represents purity and cleanliness; her naked body suggests vulnerability. Her pregnancy is a metaphor for my responsibility to my heritage and history. Their last scene together in the car for me was the final stage of acceptance. Acceptance to what my life will have to be. My film ‘Walt’ was much the same. The father and son relationship at the beginning of the film was based on my father’s guidance when I was young, which was so fundamental to my direction in life. Later on in the film, the kind old man becomes monster. But what he truly wants is to just live, which is why he consumes the children. This is all in the hope that their youth will sustain his life. This was a metaphor for my dad’s last days, as my family struggled to sustain his dwindling existence with our own struggle and efforts.
I put much of myself in each film, which is why I take so much time with the details like production design and cinematography. Myself and my cinematographer, will at an early stage in the films pre production study artwork to help stimulate our visual ideas which we will later incorporate into the film. In ‘Out There’ my talented Italian cinematographer Stefano Battarola and I were heavily influenced by some of the works we had recently been enjoying by Monet. A lot of the forest scenes we attempted to mimic the lighting and angles present in the works we had been looking at.

What is your next project?

Well I’m pretty busy with my new film called ‘The Tower’, which is early stages of pre production. The film is a sort of fairy tale horror, so it is in keeping with the rest of my work but I hope to be moving on to try and find a producer to help make it. I’m still in debate whether to go at it alone and raise capital privately or try and go through a film board. I’m still weighing up all my options with it. You see with a film board co-production, I could probably do something more elaborate but at the cost of some of my control. The other option is to go at it alone and do it low budget and completely independent, raising money with investors. That is what I did for my last few films.

As it stands, I want to focus on features only now because no one takes you very seriously with shorts, even if they are brilliant. This is normally because there are so few possibilities with shorts. If you play at a big festival, most the time they stick you in the morning. But who gets up early to run to the cinema to check out the shorts program at 10 in the morning?! Just other film makers who are usually have films in there themselves. Everyone wants to see features, so with that in mind I’m planning for ‘Out There’ to be my last short for the foreseeable future. Speaking about ‘Out There’, we are currently in pre production for a continuation of the franchise with a feature version also due next year.

If you were teaching a class of horror film students what film would you use to demonstrate the elements required- script, structure, pacing, dialogue etc.?

Well horror is such a large genre, with so many styles. It would be hard to focus on just one film. But if I was pushed, I would pick ‘The Birds’ by Alfred Hitchcock. The reason why I think ‘The Birds’ is such a good example, is that it cultivates a very real fear prominent in humanity and that is the fear of what we do not understand. In ‘The Birds’ the monster is nature itself. Its motivations are kept secret from the viewer; there is no real explanation to why nature( in form of the black crows) has become violent. It just does so. This removes a lot of complication from the story and makes the film a straight forward survival horror. The human race given enough time, can deal with almost any situation. The only thing that makes us totally powerless is our struggle against nature. The unknown leaves the viewer uncomfortable; more so then having knowledge. Knowledge leads to analysis and with analysis comes the tearing apart of ideas. This causes the viewer to understand and become unafraid. A monster is more terrifying when it is unexplained. Take the alien in ‘Alien’, there is no explanation; the audience does not know really what it wants. But the audience knows to be scared. The Shining also does this. The audience do not really know the motivation of the hotel; all we know is that it is something that should be feared.

Getting back to ‘The Birds’, the film follows all the traditional aspects of horror. It uses tense music, symbolic images of death in the form of the black crows and an animal commonly associated with doom. This is almost a clear reference to the bible. The bible always terrified society by using plagues brought on by nature to encourage people to succumb to its ideals. ‘Birds’ essentially capitalizes on this fear in the same way. The film keeps the viewer in a constant state of tension. Tension for me, has always been the foundation of horror. My films do not focus on blood and guts. I always try to use tension and surprise as my weapons of fear. Monsters in time become less scary, violence increases with every decade. The only thing which does not lose its value over time, regardless of increases of budgets or technology is old fashion tension. Tension, is the most powerful weapon in horror, and requires no budget, just skilful editing and pacing. Hitchcock said that the most horrific thing in the world is not a bomb, but the bomb ticking under a table while a child plays with a ball. What he meant by this was the anticipation of what is to come, is far more horrifying then the act itself. So the idea of a child kicking a ball near an explosive device while the clock is ticking gets every one excited. The explosion ends is a moment, but the build up last much longer and engages your viewer in a far more gripping way. So I would say this a fundamental piece of cinema for any horror director to study.

How important is the script to your films?

Script and story are the most crucial part of any film. If you haven’t got a good story, you have nothing. I do not class myself as much of a writer. I am extremely dyslexic and this gets in the way a great deal with my work. But I am a fighter and as hard as it is, I do produce scripts and stories. I’ve always been keen on creating concepts and scenarios. When I write a script, I do not stay loyal necessarily to the dialogue. A great deal gets developed and changed with the actors. I am only loyal to the subtext, the meaning behind the words. It is the meaning that drives me..

It is so important to have meanings behind your work, and in my case it is crucial to challenge an idea or an issue. Films, which do not criticize or reflect issues important to the film maker have no soul and cannot be good. Some of the simplest films can have the most interesting sub text. Take George Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’; on the surface it is just a low budget zombie film. But it’s not, it’s an extremely interesting critic on modern consumerism and capitalist society. The fact that the zombies, even post mortem are flooding back to department stores is a very good criticism of western ideals and our society’s addiction for the mall. Many people who saw that film, only really focused on the zombies and did not understand the sub text. My film ‘Out There’ will no doubt have the same issue. Both in ‘Dawn of the Dead’ and ‘Out There’, use zombies as a metaphor. The genre and style I use is just window dressing. It’s a vehicle in which I can express my feeling and theory’s in a way, which can be easily enjoyed by my audience. That all starts with the script!

How do you choose your next subject? Do you prefer an original subject or do you adapt other people’s work?

I normally prefer to choose my own. Normally, when I have an idea, it comes from something I may have seen or experienced. Often, what I will do is pick an issue that I am interested in. I will take something within my own personality and find a way of expressing it using fictional characters and a plot. I try and embody feelings or worries into drama. As I said before my film ‘Out There’ , was all a metaphor for my own worries about replacing my father as head of the Dunsany family and dealing with the pressures of responsibility. I took these worries I had and tried to create a fictional film embodying it in the form of a zombie apocalypse and throwing a relationship amidst the chaos. I find this has always been the easiest way to write. By using metaphors; it allows me to create fantasy concepts, which can be seen very superficially. But below the surface, it deals with parts of my own identity.

On occasion I have adapted stories. But I will always try and incorporate parts of my own personality within the structure of the narrative. One such story, was my film ‘Kiss Kiss’. ‘Kiss Kiss’ was an adaptation of a cautionary tale my co-producer at the time Helen Serruya told me. The story was about a woman who contracted a sexually transmitted disease from her husband. This disease could only be caused by having sexual contact with a corpse. The urban legend goes, that her husband was breaking into morgues to molest the dead. He eventually was discovered when she began to show symptoms her doctor managed to identify as symptoms of this unique bacteria . The story quickly caught my interest, due to its dark theme. It was also the year of the swine flu and the fear of contracting the disease was very prominent in London, where we were living. Myself and Serruya found it to be perfect story which dealt with themes which were very prominent in the media at the time, it quickly became my first short.

How do you feel about remakes?

If you were offered a huge Hollywood contract and budget but it had to be for a remake what film would you choose?

I’ve always been a supporter of remakes, its something which has never really bothered me about Hollywood. Take the remake of ‘Cape Fear’ or ‘Scarface’, they actually turned out even better then the originals! In my opinion, a remake can be a fantastic thing, particularly when its a re imagining of the original subject. One of my favourite films of all time was ‘Solaris’ by the great Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky. In that film Tarkovsky adapted the book by Stanislaw Lem and created one of the most important pieces of science fiction cinema of all time. But the film was very stylized, visually and narratively. It was nearly two and half hours long! It was very much in the vein of Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ in its pacing and rhythm. Then in 2002, Steven Soderbergh remade it with George Clooney and it was fantastic. Soderbergh created a very noirish adaptation with a beautiful soundtrack and created a magnificent piece of cinema. He compressed the story down and created a far more atmospheric film. But both films stand alone in their own right. They cannot be compared, as they are too different. In a situation such as this, I have huge amounts of respect for Hollywood. They are able to bring some very high quality revamps. But it only works when the story is transformed and developed in a different way. I would be very severe on remakes like ‘The last House on the Left’ and ‘Psycho’, which in my opinion were complete wastes of time. ‘Psycho’ was a shot by shot remake which was completely pointless. ‘Last House on the Left’ brought nothing new either. In fact, what was so shocking about the original was the ferocity of the violence perpetrated by the villains. It managed to give every parent in America fear of letting their teenage daughter out on a Friday night. The remake, instead of being clever and going for a much more atmospheric build up to the story, they tried to use the same formula as the 70s classic. The problem with that was they didn’t make it darker. They made the villains caricatures of typical stock Hollywood bad guys. They tried to engross every one with their graphic violence, but at the same time not allowing the violence to be too harsh so that it didn’t get censored or have difficulty getting wider distribution. They ended up with a mediocre rehash of a great film without the great aspects of the original. All they had in the remake was the violence, which was not even worse then the uncut version of the original. They didn’t even have that shock value!

If I was offered a budget from Hollywood for a remake, I guess I would have to pick ‘Stalker’ by Tarkovsky . It was such a fantastic film for its time and still has the ability to create a huge amount of tension and mystery. But it was very Russian and I think a lot of people missed out on it because of that fact. I also think it was a bit slow and tedious because very little actually happens in it, but that’s why I think a re-imagining of it would not take away from the original. With a modern day remake it could be visually darker to fit the styles of today without losing the meaning. Plus the original had so many things that were touched on but were never explained or developed. With a remake, it could try and develop these areas more. Soderbergh was so successful with ‘Solaris’ it was encouraging to see that it could be done to such a high level.

What films (in horror specifically or any genres) are hitting the spot for you now?

Well there is lots happening in cinema at the moment, but there is one film which caught my attention; The Danish drama called “Teddy Bear’ by Mads Matthiesen. I think, Matthisesen is going to the next big Nordic director. ‘Teddy Bear’ revolves around a pro-bodybuilder called Dennis, played by Kim Kold. Dennis is a shy and insecure giant, living with his mother. Dennis dreams to find the love of a women but unfortunately is socially awkward and has no success. After one of his family members marries a Thai girl that he met while on holiday, Dennis decides to look himself for a bride overseas. He ventures over to Thailand on vacation, there he commences his search. At first, all he gets are prostitutes, who are trying to hustle him for money. He is disappointed and soon gives up his search. He decides for the last few days of his holiday that he will find a gym to train at. While at the gym, he meets a wonderful women; who is completely different from the frisky prostitutes he finds in the tourist part of town. He falls for her and a beautiful relationship is formed. The film is so gentle and poetic, it reminded me a great deal of the films of Wong Kar Wai. I found it very refreshing to find an uncommon protagonist, in the form of a sensitive bodybuilder. Kim Kold performance as Dennis is spectacular! I think this film that will be a modern classic in years to come, I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in drama.

You have been convicted of murder (wrongly) but you’re on death row and going to hang in the morning. What’s your last meal?

That’s a tough one. I would have to mix the cuisines a little. First French, I would need to start with Steak Tartare. I should state at this point that I love raw meat! I would continue the meal with Japanese, I would have a light main course of a Sashimi platter. On this platter it would contain a selection of the freshest raw fish including tuna, salmon, squid and eel. It would come on a bed of Japanese pickled salad. Then to finish, I would demand the most chocolaty cake Bewleys has to offer, accompanied by ice cream and whipped cream. I would then be ready for death

You planning on ending up in a Michelin starred prison?

 Well one has to be murdered in style, I could also handle a burrito, if they felt my death was not worth the gourmet meal!

If you were an artist in any other discipline – actor, painter, novelist – and you had to be remembered for only one work (one hit wonder) what would that work be – an existing piece by another artist?

 I think if I wasn’t a film maker, I would have to be a writer. The writer I would be, would have to be Philip K. Dick. The book that I would wish to have written is ‘Do Androids Dream of Electrical Sheep’. I loved this book as a kid because it was so ahead of its time. Even the film version (Blade Runner) was fantastic. I grew up during the time when genetically modified food and cloning was in the press and there was a lot of fear in my house where that would take us. This book for me was perhaps a sad vision of how the future could turn out if we as a society did not change its ways. It was a sort of prophecy much like George Orwell’s ‘Brave New World’, which is actually closer to the way our society is going with all the extreme privacy abuse and constant information gathering. Orwell’s book was always the more likely one to come true but I’ve always been partial to a bit of fantasy and the concept that we all one day we will be charging up our pets with a plug socket was too much to miss.




About Bob Neilson

Bob Neilson lives in Dublin with his wife, two daughters, son, two dogs, one cat and a growing feeling of claustrophobia. In partnership with his wife he runs a successful retail business in Dublin city. His short fiction has appeared extensively in professional and small press markets and he has had two plays performed on RTE and one on Anna Livia FM. He also presented a radio show on Anna Livia for a year. He has had two short story collections published, Without Honour (1997, Aeon Press) and That’s Entertainment (2007, Elastic Press) as well as several comics and a graphic novel. His non-fiction book on the properties of crystals is a best-seller in the UK and Ireland.
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