In the new horror movie “Citadel” Tommy Cowley (Aneurin Barnard) is a young father suffering from severe agoraphobia after a brutal attack by a gang. Trapped in a dilapidated and sparsely populated suburb, Tommy finds help through a caring nurse (Wunmi Mosaku) who tries to help him break his isolation. Tommy is also being tugged toward a crazy priest (James Cosmo) who seems to have some answers about the gang. The priest barks at him to toughen up and go get revenge and instructs Tommy to go to an abandoned tower block known as the Citadel. Tommy, who cannot even leave his house, realizes he will not survive until he faces his demons—real and imagined.
“Citadel” won the 2012 Midnighters Audience Award at South By Southwest. Writer and director Ciaran Foy agreed to a one-on-one interview today with Examiner Dorri Olds.
Dorri Olds: What inspired you to write “Citadel”?
Ciaran Foy: When I was 18 and still living with my parents, I was returning home from the cinema. As I was walking home alone a gang of five kids wearing hoodies attacked me and brutally beat me with a hammer. One pulled my hair back and threatened me with a dirty syringe. They were laughing. I was terrified.
Wow. What a story. Were you badly hurt?
With the adrenalin, I couldn’t feel anything till the next day but the physical pain wasn’t the worst of it. The scariest part was that they didn’t take anything. They did it just for kicks. That taught me the fundamentals of terror. If you know why something happens you can make a sort of peace with it. But, if you never know why, that is the embodiment of fear.
Was it a racial attack?
No. I’m from a working class neighborhood in Ireland. They were just white working class kids. I’ll never know why they did it.
The main character, Tommy, suffers from agoraphobia. Did you?
Yes. The trauma left me with agoraphobia. I became housebound. I was scared shitless to even look at the front door. I was concerned that it would almost come across as comical if I showed the irrational fear of going outside to movie audiences.
Is that why you added supernatural elements to the story?
Yes, partly. But I also did that because I like those kind of films. I’ve always been a geek at heart who wanted to make films. I began to sketch out a creature that could see fear. It was going to be called “Fortress of Fear.” People would ask me where I got the idea for the creature but when I told them about my experience, everyone said I should write that story.
How did you heal?
A letter came that said I was accepted into film school. I’d always wanted to make movies. I realized I had to force myself out or stay crippled like that for the rest of my life. At film school I met the woman who became my wife. She encouraged me to go see this free counselor in the college. I went to placate her but it ended up being the best thing I could’ve done.
Who is the priest in the movie based on?
He’s kind of my Dad.
Was your Dad that scary?
I guess when you’re a kid, yes, your Dad can seem scary. He’d say things like, “It’s just a front door. What are you afraid of?”
Did he yell?
No, not really. My Dad is still my greatest supporter. I think he knows which parts are based on him and which parts are fictional.
You conveyed fear very well in the film.
My M.O. was always to write from the point of view of how I saw the world as a frightened 18-year old. It felt like there was no place to run. Everything was a threat. It was nightmarish. The ground was rising and falling beneath my feet like on a ship. I felt quite sick.
How did you choose Aneurin Barnard to play Tommy?
I was looking for young guys who could embody the headspace I was looking for—age 20 to 23. I saw a lot of guys but they were good looking actors—winners. They’ve only experienced life from a winner’s point of view. They haven’t had the time to experience the painful emotions of failure. Aneurin had a similar experience in his past.
He was also attacked?
He was bullied in school and had a bad incident there so he knew where I was coming from. He understood panic attacks. Aneurin spent a lot of time preparing for the role. He went to agoraphobic groups and even went to see chronic agoraphobia people who haven’t left their houses in 20 to 30 years.
Did other films influence you?
With any filmmaker I think your favorites are always floating around in your subconscious and only in retrospect do you realize it. I guess there is a little of “The Brood” by David Cronenberg which also involves kids in hoodies. I’m a huge fan of David Cronenberg. And Adrian Lyne’s “Jacob’s ladder” leaves me feeling paranoid. I’m also a big fan of Steven Spielberg.
He’s great. I got to interview him.
Wow! Cool. Yeah, my favorite films make me think about them weeks later. Horror films have to have a craft, not just cheap frights. It has to get under your skin. I didn’t want the film to be stupid horror. I wanted dramatic weight to it, a dark fantasy that felt like a nightmare. Agoraphobia is an irrational fear. You’re hearing and seeing things that aren’t there.
“Citadel” opens in New York City on Friday, November 9, 2012 at the Angelika, 18 West Houston Street. 94 minutes. Rated R.