Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for
February 6, 2019

In the horror thriller The Hole in the Ground, young mother Sarah (Seana Kerslake) moves to the Irish countryside with her son Chris (James Quinn Markey), starting a new chapter in her life as a single parent. But after an encounter with a mysterious sinkhole in the nearby woods and a subsequent series of unsettling events, Sarah becomes increasingly convinced that the boy living under her care may not actually be her child at all.

A contemporary take on the traditional mythology of the changeling (in which a child would be stolen away and replaced with a double by an external entity, like fairies or trolls), The Hole in the Ground is a whispered and disquieting endeavor that doesn't rely on jump scares and gaudy frights. Clocking in at a lean 90 minutes, it is extraordinarily deliberate and economic with its focus and energy. The buildup is measured and steady, and the payoff is tangible--the fantastical elements are not painfully overt, nor are they so ambiguous as to leave audiences cheated. This feature debut from writer/director Lee Cronin strikes a satisfying balance, carried by the subtle and unassuming performance of its leading lady, Seana Kerslake.

In this exclusive interview, Lee and Seana recount their earliest relationships with the horror genre, and talk about mapping out the story they wanted to tell, shooting on location in Ireland, and premiering The Hole in the Ground at the Sundance Film Festival.

(Side note: Hopeful that this movie garners its fair share of word-of-mouth, we though it only proper that fans should say Seana's name correctly, so she confirmed that it indeed sounds like "Shawna Kers-Lake," though she jokes, "I get all sorts of pronunciations, so I'll literally answer to anything as long as you call me. You can give me a nickname, it's fine.")

The Hole in the Ground is currently in select theaters, and available on VOD, including YouTube, Amazon, and Google Play. How was your experience of premiering The Hole in the Ground at The Egyptian Theatre at Sundance and watching it with a crowd?

LEE: Heartwarming and terrifying. I think we were both a little bit anxious about it...I was nervous but looking forward to the film being on. I was nervous in the buildup. I've sat and watched my short films before with audiences in various different places around the world and different cultures, and it's always a real eye-opener. But I realized I had a 15 minute cutoff, which is as long as I'd spent with an audience with my own work in the past. [laughs] So about 15 minutes into the premiere at Sundance, I started to get quite anxious about how it was going down at that point, and probably didn't enjoy the next 75 minutes. There were spikes when you hear audible reaction in the right place. And so many people stuck around, at essentially 2:00am, for the Q&A. That was also pretty heartening, and that part of the process was really nice. But you're putting yourself out there. And although I've had work shown in places with four or five times the seats, The Egyptian is particularly special in terms of what it means, and you know the focus is there. There's a lot of industry in the room as well, and there's a little bit of hype around the film because we're working with A24. So the lens was fairly focused on us, I think, and it was hard to escape that.

SEANA: I think Lee really hit the nail on the head there. At the time when we were shooting the movie, I know Lee had visions for [it], but I definitely wasn't thinking that we were going to premiere in Sundance. I was just focusing on the task at hand, really. I think we both were. So to get to go to Sundance was amazing. And the experience we had...It was already bought by A24, and a Midnight selection...At one point, I was like, "This is too good to be true and somebody's going to burst my bubble really soon." People stuck around for the Q&A, which is always a positive. And then the next day at the screenings, people were very responsive. So that's all you can really ask for. But when we sat in on the premiere, when you see jumps in the right place, or any sort of audible gasp or anything at the right place, you're like, "Oh, that's good, they're still with us!"

LEE: Yeah, I think there was a key moment that stood out to me. I did enjoy the last 4 or 5 minutes of the film because, without giving anything away, there's a particular moment that it builds towards...And people really reacted in the room to that moment. And at the very least, I was like, "Well, that moment both sums up a little bit of what's been happening here in terms of the mythology, but also the metaphorical play that we're making in the film." And it's not a moment that would make you vocalize anything, but the fact that sound actually came out of people was a positive sign at that point. [laughs]

Lee, I understand that like myself, you were exposed to horror at an inappropriately young age. Some of my earliest films in the genre were The Exorcist and Poltergeist. What were yours?

LEE: Poltergeist was one of them. The Exorcist I didn't catch till later. I don't think in good old Catholic Ireland, we were allowed to watch The Exorcist. I think it was banned...I saw Jaws very young. I saw The Shining at 8. Evil Dead and Evil Dead II were in the locker by 10 as well, and Poltergeist. But The Shining was probably the one that scared me the most, although I didn't realize it in the moment of watching it--it was the trauma that lasted after I watched that film which has never kind of left me. But I'm really happy that all that happened, because it carved out my imagination.

Seana, any early relationship with horror movies?

SEANA: I wasn't exposed to horror, but I have a really active imagination. I remember watching Kingpin when I was really young...

LEE: The bowling movie?

SEANA: Yeah! And I thought it was a horror, because when I was watching it, it was when a man was being carried [away] and he gets his arm cut off. And I was like, "I don't like Kingpin!" [laughs] And I was very young.

LEE: You're making me feel old, Seana, because I think when I first saw Kingpin, I was drinking beer.

SEANA: [laughs] So my version of horror is probably very different. I probably see it in many different genres. And when I came to this project, it wasn't just a straightforward horror. There's drama in there. It's illogical, but it's based in truth, you know?

So what were some of the things that attracted you to The Hole in the Ground?

SEANA: The real draw was in the writing of the character that I knew. And there was a lot going on with her, [where] she was coming from. You were meeting Sarah at a particular point in her life where she's trying to rebuild and figure out who she is. And also not knowing who her son is, and being faced with many monsters that you actually live with, and not truly really ever knowing someone and what they're capable of. And a lot of the physical elements were a real draw to me. Like I knew I was going to have to be physically and mentally prepared to go a lot of places. And I think Lee was looking forward to getting to push me into them places! [laughs] So yeah, I thought it was going to be very gratifying in that way.

LEE: I think I remember saying to you that we'd both be emotionally and physically black and blue by the end of it. [laughs]

SEANA: Yes! You wanted emotional and physical scares.

LEE: We put you through the mincer. I think we all went through the mincer as a team on it, though. It was a funny wrap party afterwards, because everybody was so tired! [laughs] Like everyone was struggling to lift a beer and cheers. Everyone was like, "I just want to go to bed."

SEANA: But we had such an amazing crew, from [cinematographer] Tom Comerford to [assistant director] Daire Glynn, [editor] Colin Campbell. They were all amazing. They were emotional [support] while shooting it as well.

What made your home country of Ireland an ideal setting for this film?

LEE: I think one of the great things about shooting in Ireland is that you can move from city to dramatic landscape within 35, 40 minutes. It's really easy to do. The mountains are essentially right on the border of the city in a couple of different directions. So Wicklow is an area which is a county just outside of Dublin, which is the area that we're from. And that's historically been used for a number of [projects]. Braveheart was shot out that way. Game of Thrones. There's a lot of very dramatic landscapes. And Reign of Fire was shot in Wicklow as well, that dragon/helicopter movie. So we used the Wicklow area quite a bit. The house was more Kildare, which is another county. But there's a lot of great rural environments around there. We tried to capture the Irish landscape in a little bit of a different way than you often see it, on as wide a canvas as I could get it.

How did you find the right location for the sinkhole? Was it largely created with special effects, or was it mostly practical?

LEE: That was tricky. Of course, we used a lot of movie magic, but there was actually some practical things we needed right. We did need, roughly, a circular clearing of a reasonable scale. I wanted a certain type of tree. We needed it to be facing the right direction, because we didn't really use any lighting--it was all natural light for those scenes. We used some deconstructed versions of that, like treeline edges, or closeups of, say, feet walking on earth, which would be in another location or area. But yeah, we were struggling to find it. It was almost too deconstructed a plan originally, where every single shot was going to need a brand new location, which was never going to work for the schedule. And we were driving out from a recce one day, and we were all feeling a little bit down that we hadn't found what we needed. And we were in this forest area, and for the first time that day, the sun came out, and it lit up a pocket of forest in the distance. We just saw a bit of a clearing, slammed on the brakes, and ran towards [it] and hoped. It was this perfect circle, and it had a megalithic tomb in the middle of it. And it was real. I can still almost hear the [chorus of angels]. [laughs] Something saved us that day. And that's where we did the majority of the sinkhole stuff. So there was a little bit of serendipity there.

As a fan of Irish folk music, I was unreasonably excited to hear "The Rattlin' Bog" in the scene at the school recital. What made that song an ideal choice for that moment?

LEE: I remember in the writing, we talked about [it]. There's two songs featured in the film--there's "The Rattlin' Bog" and then there's also "The River Saile" ("Weile Waile"). But with "The Rattlin' Bog," it was a song that reminded me of my family days, and if there was a bit of a family session and there'd be guitars pulled out, that'd be a song that would get bashed out. But it would always scare me a little bit. I don't know why, or what it is about "The Rattlin' Bog" that freaked me out a little bit. There's just something kind of wiccan about it as a song, it feels a little bit off. And I guess the repetition, as well, I found really interesting, those kind of songs that build and add more detail as they go. It feels like a panic attack as a song. It gets faster and there's more words, and it just kind of suited the scene in a lot of ways. And the fact that they talk about "the hole in the bog"...It was kind of hard to ignore that lyric, as well, you know? It kind of felt like the right fit...And it's funny, I'm only realizing it now as I say it--I think part of the motivation behind it was [that] it's got a certain frenzy to it as it builds, which kind of worked. And that is a big moment of panic for Sarah, as that song is repeating and repeating the same words, and her focus is going in on her kid.

Seana, how was it working opposite a very young co-star in James?

SEANA: I think what's good about working with kids is that they bring a certain element of unpredictability with them. James was so professional, he always knew his lines. But with a child, they might be tired in a scene, or their attention might be waning or whatever. So they keep you on your toes because I think they've got a really keen sense of what is truthful and what is not. Like, "What are we even doing in this scene?" You know, comments like that. They're a very good barometer to go by, like what is believable. But yeah, he's a little pro. He was no trouble whatsoever. And I think to get our relationship, it was just [about] getting to know him, really. I didn't want a huge, drastic change, like, "And now I am a mother, and now I am not." I think a mother is part of someone, but it's not all you are. Seeing how mothers I know communicate with their children, it was very much a natural thing. So sometimes I gave James my undivided attention, sometimes I would be letting him do his own thing. And seeing him with his own mother, how their relationship was, I could get a feel of what he'd react to and what he wouldn't react to, and that kind of thing.

With Sarah increasingly questioning reality, it seems her story could have been radically changed by just a few tweaks in the editing. How did you approach her in your performance?

SEANA: Oh yeah, the magic is in the editing...You gotta love an editor! [laughs] I think I could only really take what was given to me in the script, which was more than enough. [to Lee] I think your script was pretty concise. You knew what you wanted from her.

LEE: It's like 87 pages long. I didn't leave much room for interpretation. [laughs]

SEANA: But the thing is, though, it was there. And Lee was really collaborative with that. If something didn't feel right, we could talk it out...So he was really open in that regard. [to Lee] But I think you had a very clear idea of how you wanted the story to look, and with the edit with Colin, you knew what you wanted. And they actually were really lovely because they let a lot of scenes play out, rather than have fast edits. Like, "Let Seana have two minutes there, or have a minute and a half there." Rather than cutting around, they let them sit with Sarah.

LEE: Well, to throw the compliment back at Seana, you can only do that when there's a performance you can sit with. You know, that's the reality. But I think what works in all of our benefit is that we did define who Sarah was fairly clearly in advance. We didn't leave a lot up to chance. Like, there's a reason she doesn't scream or shout in the movie. We decided that she had a different approach to things--that she was a different type of horror mother.

SEANA: She's not a Scream Queen.

LEE: [laughs] In the background, I would have thought it's like she's probably done her screaming and shouting in the past, and it's done her no favors. And there was times, I think, where both of us were maybe a little challenged, thinking it wouldn't be the worst time ever to let one go, just to have it in the can. But it never felt right. Never felt right to do it.

SEANA: And even the level of her voice, it would never go past a certain register. She was all quite muted and restrained, and pulled back, and very conscious of movement and noise and things like that.

Your movie is noticeably succinct and economic. It conveys a lot without wasted energy...

LEE: It's a gamble, actually. But thanks for noticing and appreciating it! The longest version of this film is 98 minutes long with everything in it, the longest assembly. It was pre-planned, kind of like a little bit of a clockwork mechanism, how it would all go together. And things did move and things changed, and I think we only maybe dropped a scene...But we didn't leave a lot behind. We did work a lot on the pacing, the tension, how to make the clockwork tick the way we wanted it to tick...And I think within the kind of tram lines that we created for the character of Sarah, we also earned a little bit of playing and some variation of the takes and the performance--just where we wanted to place the volume all the time. I like to think The Hole in the Ground is a little bit like a creepy whisper in your ear rather than a big scream in your face.

Well congratulations, because it is very much that! Thank you both for speaking with us this afternoon!

LEE: Thanks so much!

SEANA: Thanks for taking the time!

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