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Hole In The Head, dir. Dean Kavanagh, behind the scenes. From left: John Allen, Gregory Burrowes, Dean Kavanagh, Lynette Callaghan & James Devereaux; on the set in Co. Carlow; 2020.

Dean Kavanagh reflects on the making of his latest feature film Hole In The Head, in a conversation with critic Borja Castillejo Calvo and the film’s cast.

Behold! The portals of darkness are open and the shadows of the dead hunt over the earth…

Faust (1926), F.W. Murnau

From my very first experience with a video camera there was an evident desire to disorganise reality to my liking; to explore the cinema doppelgänger. Over the past fourteen years, I have worked with no budgets and low budgets while initiating family and friends- and anyone who was available- as cast and crew in the service of films that explore the subset between form and content. These films, which are located slightly north of experimental and south of narrative, are an incantation to the dark side of the mechanical shutter; the projector mechanism that divides our world and, what Maxim Gorky called, the ‘Kingdom of Shadows’.

In my work, the filmmaking apparatus itself is a potential site of action, it forms part of a dramaturgy. I would like to use the motion picture itself as a potential character, to allude, for a moment, that the film’s existence is beyond a body (carrier) and approach it as something that is materialising in a flow or a stream and constantly intercepting other cognisant organisms. I would like to present a film as a creature with an awareness of the characters inhabiting it, as well as the structures that bind them all together. Therefore it is only a matter of time before it becomes aware of you, the viewer; a film animal appearing as Dasein.

– Dean Kavanagh

Hole in the Head is an upcoming feature film directed by Dean Kavanagh. The lead actors are John Curran, James Devereaux and Lynette Callaghan.

Synopsis: Part-time projectionist and amateur filmmaker, John Kline Jnr, is mute and suffers from missing time. He hires local actors to play his parents in a series of recreated home movies in order to investigate their unsolved disappearance 25 years earlier.

Description: Hole in the Head is an experimental feature film in which the protagonist re-stages his family’s home movies in order to recall a traumatic event. Melding new with old technologies and a film-within-a-film structure, Hole in the Head proposes a hauntological discourse on autofiction, trauma and private ritual.

Borja Castillejo Calvo (addressing Dean Kavanagh): This is your first film with dialogue. I want to ask about this new element in your cinema. How do you think of Hole in the Head (HITH) as a “talkie”? How have you developed it?

Dean Kavanagh: HITH is based on a short story I wrote some time ago, and so this is also my first adaptation. I had been developing sync-sound plans for many years but I never got far due to the expense of equipment and expertise. During that time I had written quite a bit but I never produced any of it. This development would not have been possible without the Arts Council’s support. I still believe that it is better to have no live sound than poor live sound. Ironically, in the case of this project, our maestro sound designer Killian FitzGerald and I spent a lot of time destroying the sound in a very forensic and controlled way- a beautiful destruction. Sonically, HITH is exciting and quite unusual- the sound work alone could possibly exist as an artwork. With regard to writing, when you are forced to work without a tool a certain sensibility emerges and this can develop into a methodology. And so, when you finally use the tool there is a tendency for a slightly different approach. In my earliest films, I concentrated on improvising with what was directly around me and I was drawn to invoke the more formalistic aspects of cinema. My thinking was: I can’t film the gunfight so my film becomes the gunfight. Things continue to develop in that manner. A script is a tool, like anything else, and it became a necessity. I want more guarantees from the situation, actor, lighting, location, etc. Improv is no longer functional in this respect; it can be an ingredient but not the whole dish.

Borja Castillejo Calvo (addressing Dean Kavanagh): Where did you start with dialogues?

Dean Kavanagh: There was a complete second draft used during the casting, however, throughout those readings you are still discovering small things you want to change. Once Lynette, James, John, John [Allen] and John [Murphy] were cast, the process became collaborative because at that stage the whole thing needs an external jolt of energy. Six drafts of the script were made and each with a few revisions. All of the pre-production took place entirely on Zoom.

Borja Castillejo Calvo (addressing actors): The relationship between an actor and their character is always interesting. With this particular film, there is an important approach to this kind of duplicity. How can you describe your own relationship with your characters?

Lynette Callaghan: Initially I asked Dean for any film references- specifically for reference with my character. He sent me some scenes from classic movies and suggested Charlotte Rampling as an actress to look at. That really helped me. That’s where the character began really. The detailed backstories Dean had come up with for each character were also a huge help. In HITH, I was always playing Susan and had to make choices on how much of her broke through while she was playing John’s mother, Helen. It was about finding those moments when Susan slips out of character and we see her anxieties, insecurities and hurt coming through; trying to get that balance between Susan the actress and Susan the woman.

John Curran: I found parts of my character difficult to relate to. I didn’t have a frame of reference for the darker elements of his mind. On the other hand, I could relate to him not talking as I’m not much of a talker. The character grew more unsettling to me as the shoot went on. I could understand why he was so depressed. There’s not a lot for him to be optimistic about. He has his film that he’s working on but then that doesn’t go to plan.

James Devereaux: Although there are two characters I deal with them entirely separately. In this case, I’m playing an actor playing a character. Naturally, the difference between the two needs to be obvious. Much of this is down to the very basic, illusory aspects of performance; one character may wear spectacles while the other may not. More profoundly the differences between the two characters lie in their actions – in what each character is trying to achieve, which is contrasting. So the analytical aspects of the work are extremely important to me. I decide what I think each character is doing in the script and then I find concurrent actions for me to do. So in performance, the change of character becomes a question of flipping between different actions. The change of action is the change of character.

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Hole In The Head, dir. Dean Kavanagh, behind the scenes. James Devereaux; on the set in Co. Carlow; 2020.

Borja Castillejo Calvo (addressing Dean Kavanagh): I want to ask you about working with actors. John Curran had collaborated with you earlier but in this film, there is a greater (and more “classical”) development of character. Can you talk about your experience in this case?

Dean Kavanagh: I took a very traditional approach, initially at least, just expanding or contracting detail. Our protagonist is a black hole, an enigma even to himself, and so we try to understand him through his actions as the other characters distort and bend around him. As their relationship dissolves the other characters grow more complex, inverting the dynamic. Costume was so important from the outset and a significant amount of time was spent working with each actor to furnish their character and scenes with specific touches to evoke certain traits. HITH really is a chamber piece at heart, and so it lives or dies by the chemistry between the actors. Using Zoom was a little challenging in the context of film rehearsals with technical issues such as lag and signal quality in particular. It was a process by necessity. Whatever didn’t translate immediately on the calls was earmarked for when we finally got together.

Borja Castillejo Calvo (addressing actors): We can talk about the ways that you act depending on each scene. There are several changes in the film that affect how you perform and some specific situations that require different approaches. Can you elaborate on that?

James Devereaux: Changes of approach are usually questions of form. The essence is always the same though: you are always doing an action in the scene, the action is the soul of the work. If there are changes in style then that comes from the script and the way the scene is structured, and so you meet the demands of each scene: one scene may be structured in a more recognisably natural way, and another may be structured as, say, reportage. The point is you are fitting your performance into the structure.

Lynette Callaghan: Certain things change naturally when you get on set. Especially since any interaction the cast had was through Zoom. It was difficult to establish if there was any chemistry with any of the actors. It really was important that there was a dynamic between myself and James Devereaux. Most of my scenes rely on that. The first scene we shot takes place late in the movie. I was blown away by his performance – he’s a phenomenal actor who makes you feel comfortable whilst also being completely intimidating in his role. There was an interesting good-cop/bad-cop relationship that developed straight away. Just a natural change when actors get together and know their characters and can play about. It was probably always Dean’s intention to get there, I just hadn’t picked up on it in the Zoom rehearsals.

John Curran: Usually when I work with Dean, there is no sound being recorded and he can give me instructions during the take. This was the case for most of the outdoor scenes we shot where my character was by himself. Sometimes I was at such a distance that I would have a walkie-talkie hidden on my person and Dean could convey instructions to me that way. These scenes seemed more improvisational to me. Filming the dialogue scenes was obviously different. I had several cues to hit with the other actors. It was almost like a stage play as we ran through the pages of the script. I really enjoyed playing off the other actors’ performances. They brought the story to life for me.

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Hole In The Head, dir. Dean Kavanagh, behind the scenes. From left: Michael Higgins & Dean Kavanagh; on the set in Co. Carlow; 2020.

Borja Castillejo Calvo (addressing Dean Kavanagh): This film shows many different textures in order to create multi-format imagery. What can you say about in-camera editing, post-production and working with all those different mediums?

Dean Kavanagh: Each format is a site of immense narrative potential. And so, migrating from one format to another becomes a dramaturgical act. I really want a film to be a character in and of itself and I want to encourage a handmade feel. All of the disintegration processes and special effects were achieved manually, in an analogue way, either by direct chemistry, circuit bending, laser cutting or explosives. The first draft of the script had a busy margin and this became an intrinsic part of the story. I am a technician by trade, I have worked in development, production, post-production, exhibition, and within a film archive- there is a certain level of detail that I am committed to exploring. Here, the textures have a narrative value since the tech had to correspond to its availability in a specific era. Throughout the shoot, there were never fewer than two motion picture formats running at any given time, each with a separate agenda. I devised a simple manifesto where the rules shift per format as per Act 1, Act 2, etc. This was purely functional since we weren’t shooting chronologically and each section has a different energy and feel, likewise with each format. Once edited there needed to be an overall trajectory. The only in-camera editing was on Hi8 tape and super-8mm film, and that was fun- controlled chaos. I learned a lot from talking with my friend, the great film artist Joseph Bernard; I gleaned a certain approach and mindfulness from him. If you want to see the full potential of small-gauge cinema, seek out his work. Michael Higgins is also an incredible filmmaker and technician working across many formats, and his contributions were invaluable.

Borja Castillejo Calvo (addressing actors): I also want to ask you about the presence of the camera(s). Sometimes you touch them, look right in front of them and even film with them. What was your relationship with the camera(s) and how do you feel about this aspect of the film?

John Curran: There were several cameras used to make this film. Some of them appeared on screen as props but were also active and used to shoot parts of the film. The Hi8 camcorder was involved in an important plot point and seemed more like a prop to me. I felt similarly about the Super8 cameras. It was an artefact of the story. The 16mm camera felt different. While the physical device does appear on screen, it was as though it was competing with the digital camera to tell its own narrative. Perhaps the finite amount of reel and the expense involved gave the 16mm camera a greater significance in my eye. I have a small amount of experience using cameras, but I’d never been near a 16mm camera before. My character is supposed to be technically proficient with cameras, so I could just ask Dean for advice if I had any trouble using one. Shooting a scene with a slow-motion camera was very interesting to me; although I was more concerned about the fake blood being squirted in my face.

Lynette Callaghan: Well, there were a lot of cameras. Aside from the Blackmagic that we were shooting the movie on, there was also the sync-sound Bolex which was used to film the documentary elements of John’s mother, Helen. It was great to be able to delve into the unease my character Susan was feeling in these scenes, and use the Bolex to channel this directly.

James Devereaux: Well, I’m an actor but I’m also a cinephile, and so film-within-a-film structures are very captivating to me. There is something exciting too about cinema referencing itself, or cinema bouncing back onto itself. From an acting perspective, the situation you are in, on set, is already creative and touching off the imagination. The cameras inflame that atmosphere further, especially when I am filming with them: I am performing but now I am creating frames and images too, I am directing as well as acting, albeit within this fictional setting.

Borja Castillejo Calvo (addressing John Curran): You have previously worked with Dean on several projects and, at first sight, your character here works as an essential reminder of mutism. No words are needed in your case, it’s all a game between your presence, your image and the rest of bodies, landscapes and memories. Can you talk a little bit about these aspects?

John Curran: The character wasn’t always going to be mute. Dean had that idea after I had come on board. I thought it was an interesting choice. It revealed elements of the character without having to spell it out. Silent characters demand more scrutiny in a way. It also meant I didn’t have to memorise any lines! I’ve maintained spells of prolonged silence throughout my own life, so this element presented a way for me to empathise with the character. It was intolerable to try and relate to some of his other traits. The landscapes in Connemara were spectacular. I have a familial connection with the area and loved being out there. I tried to act as though the character wasn’t particularly interested in his surroundings, except for those scenes where that was a requirement of the story. I thought the prop dummy was a special element of the film. To me it was its own character; forced to go where my character went and endure many things.

Borja Castillejo Calvo (addressing Lynette Callaghan): I have the feeling that your interpretation of John’s mother hides a great power of emotional containment. Your character is perhaps the most mysterious because she plays the most hurt of all. How did you get that mood? Your close-ups are beyond intriguing, and I wanted you to talk a little bit about the preparation process to manage so much emotion without revealing too much.

Lynette Callaghan: Well, for a start, we were shooting in this incredible, albeit creepy house in the middle of nowhere with a fantastic small cast and crew who made things very easy and comfortable. We were in the throes of the pandemic so no one could leave the house. Phone and wi-fi reception was poor. I was missing my dog but the place was beautiful (thank God we got on so well, lol). There was none of the usual stuff like driving to set, no hair and makeup (I did my own as my character Susan would have). I was living as close to the character as one could, which made it easy to embody her. It really was a film within a film, within a film etc, etc. I’ve never worked on anything like it. So having all that backdrop along with Dean’s dialogue and attention to detail made these scenes very easy to slip into. There becomes a point in the movie where it’s clear Susan no longer wants to be in this madhouse playing the character of John’s mother. The accent has slipped and her anger and hurt have become real. She’s simply saying lines and trying to get through this nightmare.

Borja Castillejo Calvo (addressing James Devereaux): As an actor, you are playing another actor and this character adapts to each situation in an arrogant and funny way at the same time. You are able to give this many layers. What is your point of view regarding the actions or procedures you have worked on in this case?

James Devereaux: For me, ‘performance is personality’. The character only exists as a point of reference in the script. So I don’t create a character or try to ‘become’ the character, for me there is no character – the viewer perceives a character, but really there is only the actor, the character is an illusion in the mind of the viewer. My approach to acting is about unlocking my own personality for the scene and using that. I believe this creates complexity in the scene because all personalities are complex. The qualities you mention are already embedded in the script, and the script works itself in my imagination. Then, I’ve selected actions for myself to do in each scene, and doing these actions creates truth. In the end, acting is a paradox; we are acting truthfully in order to create an illusion.

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Hole In The Head, dir. Dean Kavanagh, behind the scenes. From left: Leon Kavanagh, Anja Mahler, John Curran; on location in the Dublin mountains; 2020.

Borja Castillejo Calvo (addressing Dean Kavanagh): I think that HITH is both an innovation and a continuation of your work. In fact, there is some kind of further exploration of what cinema means to you. With your previous films, fiction is inside of real life. You have always filmed your own family and friends- there is an intimacy in that process and with HITH you approach that purely through fiction. Can you elaborate?

Dean Kavanagh: I’d even go so far as to say that those early films are close to a diary filmmaking practice. As a result, they have become a peculiar record of collective and fictive time.1 HITH became an inversion of past methods since, due to the pandemic, we had to live together for entire sections of the shoot. We became like a family- it was both wonderful and unusual. The atmosphere on location was so important and maintaining everyone’s energy was paramount. Our incredible producer, Anja Mahler, devised a great schedule to that effect. We were in the early throes of the pandemic after all, and everything beyond our bubble was doom-laden with uncertainty. Generally, movie sets are surreal places that you rarely have the time to ponder over but some of my earliest industry jobs involved sleeping on location to secure the gear while everyone else went home. I’d walk around at night through the cavernous sets with all the pre-rigged set-ups- it was like waking up inside a mausoleum. With HITH, I wanted everyone to think about this aspect as we were living on the locations. I left various cameras loaded and accessible to everyone, I kept a dedicated tape recorder in one room as a kind of bizarre confessional device, and I had ‘family portraits’ taken. I also issued actors a series of disturbing, type-written diary entries that form the protagonists’ ‘screenplay’: a film within a film, within a film, etc. And so, fictional plots were emerging as we lived through the production. It was a truly unique situation and I savoured the natural weirdness like a fine wine. In the end, none of this is directly cited on screen but it radiates through the atmosphere of the production- the images have a certain discrete glow, a half-life. Anyway, that’s what I told the therapist.

More about Dean Kavanagh.

Borja Castillejo is a writer and independent film critic based in Spain, founder of cinesinfin.

Hole in the Head was funded by The Arts Council of Ireland.

1 – Dean Kavanagh reflects on his first feature film here: https://www.deankavanagh.com/single-post/historyofwater10years

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