Interview: Stephen Fingleton talks The Survivalist
Staff Reporter | On 13, Feb 2016Reading time: 9 mins
The Survivalist is out now on VOD. The film, which marks the debut of director Stephen Fingleton, follows a man who lives off the grid in a starvation-stricken world. When a starving woman and her teenage daughter discover his forest refuge, the trio began an uneasy, ongoing arrangement that threatens not only his carefully constructed world but also his life.
The movie has earned the filmmaker a deserved BAFTA nomination for Outstanding Debut and is available on to rent on a range of video on-demand platforms – including We Are Colony, where the film also comes with a host of exclusive digital special features, such as the director’s short film, Magpie, upon which The Survivalist was based.
We Are Colony sat down to chat with Stephen Fingleton about making his film. Ahead of the EE BAFTAs ceremony on Sunday 14th February, here’s that interview, courtesy of the site:
Pitch us your film in one sentence.
The Survivalist is about a man who survived by any means necessary, who finds his life threatened when two women discover his weakness, which is desire.
Now tell us what it’s actually about.
The film’s really about what people are like when you take civilisation out of the equation. Who are we? Because so much of our lives are based on our jobs, our names and the expectations placed upon us. What if you take all of those away and see what’s emergent? If all those hidden desires were at the surface… that’s what the film’s about.
How did you begin in creating the dystopian world of The Survivalist?
I began the film when I heard about ‘peak oil theory’, which is the idea that fossil fuels go into decline – not when they run out, when production slows – the economy’s need for continual growth will mean there’ll be a huge price spike and eventually it’ll lead to economic collapse and I thought it was fascinating. Our dependency on resources, whether it’s credit, which is just a financial instrument, or fresh water or fossil fuels, lead me to imagine how I would survive in such a circumstance.
The Survivalist is an act of fantasisation. If you look at most post-event films or series like The Walking Dead, to some extent they’re about wish fulfilment. We feel so constrained by our lives and by societal strictures that we like that idea that we could survive by our wits and be ourselves, truly, in a world which is ‘survival of the fittest’. There’s something exciting about that.
Films are very narcissistic, for example, none of them have sustained periods of grieving for the people they’ve lost. It’s all about the present characters and the extinguishment of where they came from. The Survivalist is slightly different, because it’s about characters who have lost everyone they’ve ever known and they have been deformed by that process, they’ve had to kill to survive – everyone on-screen is a killer – and we’re looking at the effects of that.
Essentially it’s a suspense film about three characters in close proximity who don’t necessarily trust each other, but who begin to grow closer and that raises interesting questions about who they are and whether civilisation is something we agree upon as a functional way of organising things, or whether it genuinely reflects the kinship, that is in our genes, between us.
What prompted certain stylistic choices, such as the absence of the musical score? Or the use of graphics at the beginning?
Primarily it’s about tension. How do you get an audience invested in what’s going on? In my experience, you treat them as adults and you let them do the investigation, you get them to look for clues, you get them to realise – just as in life – there isn’t a dramatic music cue before a car hits you. I was very interested in not editorialising, not providing the context, because the context isn’t relevant. I have a very clear year-by-year theory for everything that happens in the film but you could have a completely different account of why things have collapsed.
There’s very little dialogue – maybe 100 lines – again, you have to investigate the characters to work out what’s happening and hopefully the audience will be a lot more involved if they make that investment. In the first 15 minutes of the film, there’s a single character on-screen and it’s like an induction course – this is going to be the grammar of what we’re doing, this is going to be the journey. When a really interesting story emerges, it exceeds what the audience expects will happen.
The absence of the music came down to the fact this is a world without electricity, therefore music doesn’t really exist. People play acoustic instruments, but why would they do that, because it might attract attention? I do have characters in the film who play music on occasion, in their safe haven, but every time they play that music it reminds you of how much it’s fallen silent. So it’s presence emphasises its absence.
It also allowed us to focus on the sound design. Almost everything you hear on-screen was re-recorded afterwards. Every rustle of a branch, every creak in the floorboard, every bit of wind. M sound designer Jamie Roden and his team spent a huge amount of time creating that so we could control every element of the audience’s experience. We mixed the film in mono, and we tried to create a very heightened suspension of disbelief, it’s a very interesting experience in that regard. So much of the film is told through sound and because you can’t always tell where it’s coming from, it’s more tense. It’s an aural experience.
“I was very interested in not providing the context…”
What was the biggest challenge of making this film?
The biggest problem with a lot of films is your cast; if you haven’t cast correctly or had the time and I made a decision in this that I was going to cast it right and get the time I needed on-set. And so I would spend a lot of time rehearsing on set with the cast. The process was so centred around them and that meant sometimes I ran behind because I was so focused on getting the best performance from him. So making sure they had the time to do that when you’re surrounded by a big production machine was one of the big challenges.
The other major challenge was creating the sound, which we were making from scratch. To make it sound realistic but totally controlled as well was the thing that took the longest out of any aspect of the movie.
Did your short films – one of which is a prequel to The Survivalist – provide a good starting point from which to direct your first feature?
Short films are essentially sketch books for oil paintings. We did a prequel to the movie called Magpie which was funded by the BFI as a trial run for how I would direct The Survivalist and I cast Martin in that and he was so good I cast him in the feature and we were shooting within a matter of months. It was a great experience – we had a lot of the same crew – it was fascinating beginning to establish the language of shooting a feature film. It’s a brilliant idea, if you get the chance to make 15 minutes of the movie you’re going to do you find out what works and what doesn’t work. In Magpie the performances are really good, but the one thing I didn’t like, if this is set in a world where everyone is starving, the actors look very well-fed. So I knew for The Survivalist they had to lose weight. So for 10 weeks prior to the shoot Martin began dropping his eating massively. We had a nutritionist who advised Martin, Mia and Olwen on cutting back their diet. Olwen remained on the diet throughout the whole production. That’s something that came from the experience of shooting Magpie.
The film is a very lean, tense thriller, was that the case from the get-go or did you have to leave a lot on the editing room floor?
Suspense is an interesting thing and creating suspense comes from a number of different sources. There’s loads of strategies you can use, such as the absence of music. We recreated a lot of the script in rehearsal and so my actors would get rid of lines, they would suggest new ways of walking through the scenes and then when we were onset, they’d recreate the scene again and we’d find out what worked best. But the premise was fundamentally suspenseful because you have three characters in a cabin and there’s not enough food for all of them. So whatever way you cut it, every scene should be full of tension. Every single scene. Anytime anything is happening on screen, one of the characters could die. I’ve sat through screenings with 300 people where nobody goes to the toilet because it’s so tense.
A lot of that as well is to do with my editor Mark (Towns; Lilting), who has a strong background in documentary and has won a BAFTA for it, and we’re very disciplined in making sure the audience has the best experience. It’s essentially a cable we’re running the audience along and the tighter that cable is, the better the experience.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a filmmaker?
They’re all really important. The biggest lesson I’ve always taken forth with me – and it’s taken a long time – is that the actors tell the story. When I got into filmmaking I was obsessed with the camera, with formats, dollies, cranes but I’ve worked for a long time with my editor and he says the most important thing is what you’re cast do. He says I can’t do anything if the cast haven’t given me something to cut with. And I had to make a lot of choices and compromises, as you have to with any low-budget film, in order to protect the actors so they could deliver their performances and it’s really reinforced that in the process because as long as the actors can tell the story, you’ll be alright.
The Survivalist is available on All 4 until 17th February 2020.