Semi-natural: An Interview with Vivarium’s Lorcan Finnegan

The title of Lorcan Finnegan’s festival favourite Vivarium (2019), which had its Australian premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival last year, refers to a semi-natural enclosure for keeping animals under observation. And ‘semi-natural’ turns out to be a great word for describing Finnegan’s burgeoning filmography. The Irish director’s music videos, commercials, shorts, and two features often concern a battle between wilderness and man-made order in some way, with the antagonist in Vivarium being a never-ending, supernaturally claustrophobic housing estate.

Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg are the charming young couple, Gemma and Tom,  who get trapped in Yonder, a lime-cordial-green suburban sprawl where they’re forced to settle down and raise a disturbing child-thing named simply The Boy in order to escape. I spoke with Finnegan about the trippy reality of living in our own COVID-19 version of Yonder, and some of the more nutty fan-theories he’s heard about his own film. He was a warm and generous subject, and he had some pretty choice self-isolation movie recommendations to boot.

Eliza Janssen: Where are you for self-iso?

Lorcan Finnegan: ‘Self-iso’, I like it; so Aussie. [I’m] in Dublin, just at home.

EJ: It’s so serendipitous that Vivarium, this movie about people being stuck indoors, has come out while everyone is stuck indoors. Do you feel like it’s brought out this really authentic side of the film?

LF: It’s weird, it seems slightly prescient. It was meant to have a theatrical release, so a lot of the distributors had been getting ready for that; in Paris, we had big ads on the subway. And it did actually come out in France for like two days in cinemas, before they closed down. So it was a bummer to not do theatrical, but at the same time, the film seemed to suit all this weird stuff that was going on. A lot of PR people wanted to promote it as ‘the perfect self-isolation movie’. But it’s good that people are watching loads of stuff on VOD at the moment anyway — big studio movies are on iTunes [and] it’s sort of levelled the playing field. It’s weird, ‘cause I’ll never get to experience watching Vivarium fresh ever, obviously, anyway. But it’s so different watching it with all this going on.

EJ: Are you taking this time to relax, or are you full-steam ahead on another project?

LF: We’ve already started casting the next project — don’t know when we’re going to be able to shoot it, but we’re planning on a September/October start anyway, so we’re still keeping that as a target. But if it has to move, it has to move. We’ve been working on that for a couple of years already. And then I’m working on three new projects as well, two with the same writer, one with another writer. So yep, staying productive.

EJ: This movie feels like a great form of birth control, in how disturbing the character of The Boy was. How did you explain that to the child actor (Senan Jennings), the kind of uncanny character they’re meant to be playing?

LF: It was obviously described in the script: what he was like, his mannerisms, the way that he moved. So when we were seeing people come in, you know, they’re seven year olds. They just act like seven-year-olds. And when Senan [Jennings] sent in a self-tape, he had the perfect kind of look, so I was like, ‘God, I hope this guy’s good’. And he did that little play from the start of the second act, in such a creepy kind of way. Then I got him in, we did some more scenes and he was able to adjust his performance. We would tell him, you know, ‘Smile a tiny bit less’…

EJ: ‘Be less normal.’

LF: He was great. Very intelligent, smart kid who just got it. He’s cool.

EJ: His vocal quality was so interesting as well, how did you achieve that?

LF: The first version of the estate agent played by Jonathan Aris, who brings the main characters to Yonder — he voiced the little boy and the older boy as well, so that there’d be vocal continuity with all of them. That took ages in the sound mix, syncing it. And then Sennan had a little bit of a lisp; you could tell the shape of his mouth was making a lisp sound. So we had to make Jonathan make lisp sounds, and cut out certain vowel sounds so it would all be in sync.

EJ: Obviously everywhere has their own version of the suburbs. But our mutual friend Debbie who helped organise this interview has said that the film reminded her specifically of these never-ending housing estates in Ireland. Did personally you grow up around those suburbs?

LF: No, not really. The suburbs are kind of reflective of a modern phenomenon; from the early 2000s, there was a big economic boom in Ireland, which resulted in these big housing developments being built everywhere, which I think is happening right now in Australia as well. They were just very generic, and it’s like an architect never even got involved; drag and drop, copy and paste. Like they just use a fractal pattern to fit as many houses into the space as possible so they can maximise the profits. It was a very commercial venture. And a lot of those places then, when the crash happened in 2007/2008, they just got abandoned. They’re called ghost estates. They were kind of an inspiration for what the place in Vivarium looks like, more than the 1950s housing estates that popped up.

EJ: Looking at the commercials you’ve directed, I’ve noticed that there’s also this visual idea of symmetry that comes up a lot. Is that something that’s always influenced you?

LF: I don’t know…I suppose a lot of commercials I do are in that heightened, weird, surreal space, and kind of absurd. And that kind of heightened design lends itself well to weirdness. I did do graphic design in college, so that’s maybe why I like things to be a certain way. 

EJ: It made me think of Kubrick a bit, but Kubrick doesn’t seem to care about his characters — whereas in Vivarium, you really feel for the protagonists.

LF: Yeah, I love Kubrick as well. I think I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969) when I was like eight, it kind of melted my brain a little bit.

EJ: I watched your short Foxes (2012) too, right after Vivarium, and it functioned really well as a companion piece.

LF: It actually was more of a direct companion piece I wrote to my first film, Without Name (2016). That was a very atmospheric, hypnotic, psychedelic, foresty, trippy movie about a guy who is asked to measure this forest, and it has an entity that won’t allow him to measure it, and ends up doing something to his psyche. But I think Foxes could be interesting before Vivarium — we hadn’t even thought of Vivarium before we made Foxes, but it was definitely a segue.

EJ: Totally, they had really different tones, but some of the same ideas show up. I felt like there was a gendered reading in both of them that was definitely more blatant in Foxes, but it’s also there in Vivarium. Gemma is saddled with looking after the family’s domestic space, whereas Tom is the man of the house trying to find this hopeless fantasy solution.

LF: To me, it’s like the place [of Yonder] and The Boy push Gemma and Tom into these gender roles, and make them conform to a predetermined role. But Foxes is all about nature coming in and claiming a place, and Vivarium is all devoid of nature. And like, what would that do to you?

EJ: What is it doing to us? Right now? 

LF: Yeah, seriously.

EJ: I don’t think I’ve seen Jesse Eisenberg play a role like this, where he’s a really down-to-earth, relatable character. What was the process of casting him and Imogen Poots?

LF: Imogen came on first. It’s really her movie, even though it’s a two-hander. She’s sort of the lead. We met up and we started talking about who we’d get to play Tom, and I was remaining open-minded about who would play that role. So once she was definitely going to do it, it opened up a range of people, but also discounted some actors for whatever reason. We wanted to find a couple that seemed very normal and regular, and Jesse was on this list — and that really interested me. And Imogen had worked with Jesse twice before, so she knows him and knows the kind of thing he’d be interested in. She fired off the script to him on her phone and he read it in two days and really liked it. So we met up, and he was cool and totally got it. One of the reasons he wanted to do it was that it was a role he doesn’t normally play; this normal guy who digs and works with tools, as opposed to this fast talking, American-Jewish guy or whatever.

EJ: Vivarium came out at MIFF alongside The Art of Self-Defense (2019), where Imogen and Jesse are playing totally different characters.

LF: I really liked The Art of Self-Defense! I saw it in New Zealand, and it was great to see Jesse play such a totally different role. Jesse’s the lead in that one, and Imogen’s sort of in the background — and in my movie it’s the opposite, and she really gets to shine.

EJ: For me, I felt like Vivarium was perfectly positioned between being a weird, original sci-fi world, and not over-explaining its mystery — like, I was very content to not know everything about the plot and the mythology of Yonder. But there are definitely people online who are keen to break down the film and totally understand it. What are some of your favourite fan theories you’ve heard?

LF: I love all those ‘Vivarium Explained!’ videos on Youtube, ’cause I’m watching them going, ‘Wow, okay, some of that stuff wasn’t necessarily intentional’. But when you’re making a film or any other kind of art form, it’s like a manifestation of the unconscious collective that ends up making these things. So you’re not really in a position yourself to analyse it and say what it means. Other people are in a better position because they’re coming in cold. So yeah, there’s a theory about how the whole thing’s a computer game, and only the boy can lift up the curb and move through layers because he’s part of the code. 

EJ: Ooh, Matrix-y.

LF: That’s not something I ever thought of. In some ways it’s better to not tell people what to think so you get to hear all these theories.

EJ: Okay, this is a dumb question, but if you could broadcast something to everybody in the world while we’re all in self isolation, what would it be?

LF: Oh, like a good lockdown movie? 

EJ: Apart from Vivarium.

LF: Seeing as you’re Australian, Wake in Fright (1971). I was thinking about that film recently, it’s almost like the inverse of now. Where the guy can go to bars and go out, but he doesn’t want to. He just wants to go home! That could be an interesting one. Woman in the Dunes (1964) is another one, a film by Tashigara, from the new wave of Japanese filmmaking. That’s like where a guy ends up trapped in this house with a woman, and he can’t escape ‘cause they’re dug into the sand dunes. Safe (1995) is another one that could be interesting…

Vivarium is now available to view to rent via Google Play, iTunes, Fetch, Telstra, Umbrella Entertainment and Foxtel On Demand.

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Eliza Janssen is a Melbourne writer of criticism and screenplays who wants you to know that there are pterodactyls in the background of the breakfast table montage in Citizen Kane. For more information visit elizajanssen.com / @eliza_janssen.

Eliza Janssen