Grabbers pits monsters against liver disease as a small Irish island is infested with blood-sucking aliens who are violently allergic to alcohol. It’s one of the three films opening the 13th FrightFest festival, so we caught director Jon Wright for a quick chat about the film…
How did you first get involved with Grabbers?
The two producers who worked on my first film, Tormented, sent me the script – they read it and thought it’d be something that I’d like. I read it wanting to dislike on the basis that it’s a monster movie about people who immunise themselves by getting drunk – I thought “that sounds awful” – but by the end of it I absolutely loved the script. It kind of took me prisoner against my will.
The monsters in the film are pretty cool – were you involved in the creature design?
Yeah, very much so. The original script descriptions were very suggestive and metaphorical, but not very specific. They’d say, like, “the monster is like Medusa on a bad hair day” or “a nest of whipping tentacles,” which evoked a tentacle monster but didn’t really say what it looked like. So we went off on a long journey of working out the ecology of the grabber and their home planet: how they lived on their home planet, where they were on the food chain, how they reared their children and all this absurd geeky stuff. From there we developed the design.
So for example, grabbers don’t have the same sense of up and down that we do. Humans and Earth-based creatures tend to have their eyes are on the level with the horizon line, and they have a sense of up and down and when they’re falling over, while a grabber doesn’t really have that. It’s always upright no matter how many degrees it turns. Everything’s circular: the eyes are in a circle, the mouth can rotate in a circular way, the skull moves within the body and that rotates like a sphere in every direction.
We looked at the alien in Alien, too – although it doesn’t speak and you never communicate with it or know what it’s thinking, you get a sense of it having intelligence. We tried to give the grabber a thought process and make it out to be an intelligent, sneaky, crafty creature; hopefully you can sense that it’s thinking about things.
The grabbers are obviously mostly CGI – is there any prosthetic element involved?
Yeah, it’s actually a mixture. For example, the scene where the female grabber launches herself onto O’Shea’s head is 50% prosthetic and 50% CG. The stuntman had a rugby helmet on with a silicone grabber attached to it, and it had LEDs on it. The CGI guys tracked the LEDS three dimensionally and added their tentacles onto it. The combination of the CGI tentacles whipping about and the silicone tentacles whipping about looked quite realistic; they were animating something that already existed, so that just gave it an extra level of reality.
The whole film looks really, really great; it’s not washed out or blue-filtered, it’s quite colourful. Was it shot on digital?
It’s shot on a digital camera with very old lenses, so it’s a mixture of old school and new school. We were going for an old-fashioned, softer look with hazy highlights and quite a warm, organic feel – like you said, we went for quite a colourful palette because we wanted to get away from that clichéd bleached-out look. Our colour scheme is quite heightened, but in a romantic way, I think, which reflects the fact that it’s a romantic comedy of sorts. It’s a monster movie masquerading as a romantic comedy, or perhaps the other way around.
The cast are all brilliant, and I thought Richard Coyle’s Irish accent was pretty convincing – how did he manage that?
He worked very hard on that accent, and he had an Irish voice coach, one of the best voice coaches in the world. I wanted to get to a point where Irish people wouldn’t be distracted by the fact that there was someone coming in and doing a bad accent in the movie, which is what happens in a lot of international productions, because there’s this attitude amongst British and American actors that they can do an Irish accent when they can’t. I was born in Ireland, all my family is from Ireland and I’ve travelled there and lived there for a bit, so I’ve got an ear for the accent and what’s authentically Irish and what isn’t. I wanted to get it to a place where people who come from Ireland could get lost in the film and not be distracted by anything untoward.
Getting the portrayals of drunkenness right must have been difficult, too?
We worked quite hard on that. We did some rehearsals drunk to prepare for the role. Withnail And I is one of my favourite drunk movies, and we took a leaf out of Richard E Grant’s book – he got paralytically drunk before they started shooting, and he claims he had a hangover throughout the entire shoot. He was trading on what he called his ‘chemical memory’ of being drunk.
So on the Saturday night before we started shooting, I took Richard and Ruth out to the great and the good pubs of Belfast, and we drank a skinful, an absolutely humongous amount of booze, and then we went back to the hotel room where I videotaped Richard and Ruth doing some of the scenes from the film. We did about an hour and a half’s rehearsal, and it ended with us passing out. Ruth passed out, Richard passed out, and I passed out in the lobby of the hotel. The next day, we watched the tape and then destroyed the evidence. Part of the condition of Ruth doing it was that I destroyed the tape in front of her, which I did. I was quite nervous about showing it to her: it was quite unflattering, and I was worried it might affect her confidence – she normally is very photogenic and pretty, but she looked really ugly on this tape, she looked strange and unattractive.
But she found it useful and cherry-picked loads of different things from it. We had a repertoire of little physical things that she did, strange things that you wouldn’t think of, like comforting herself by putting her hands on her face. So sometimes if I felt it wasn’t quite convincing as a drunk performance, I’d say “why don’t you try that thing we saw on the tape?” We had a lot of things she could tap into. I think she’s a great actress, and it’s a real trick to pull off the character arc that she does.
Russell Tovey’s drunk bit is great, too.
He’s a much more shambolic, kind of camp drunk, I suppose.
OK, so finally, if you were in a pub and had to ward off a bloodsucking alien by getting really drunk, what would you drink?
I’m a lager drinker, usually. But because of the aliens, I’d go for a nice single malt whiskey. Probably Black Bush, which is a Northern Irish whiskey, which has a fantastic flavour to it. I could drink gallons of that. Or I would have done in my heyday, at least; I have a young child now, so all of that’s behind me. If you believe me, anyway.