Director Jon Wright talks to Emer Sugrue about his new film Grabbers, how not to offend the Irish and how to be more like the 80s
The comedy-horror genre has been growing ever more popular in recent years. Ever since Shaun of the Dead, it seems everyone wants to try their hand at it. Grabbers is the latest film to take on the duel-genre challenge and as a small Irish production, has had astonishing success. The film features an alcoholic Garda, Ciarán O’Shea (played by Coupling‘s Richard Coyle) on a small island off the west coast of Ireland who gets paired up a with prim and proper Dublin Garda, Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley). So far, so buddy-cop. But after a few people go missing, several dozen whales are beached at once and the local fisherman/belligerent drunk catches a blood-thirsty monster allergic to alcohol, it emerges that O’Shea and Nolan will have more problems to deal with than their mismatched personalities and underlying sexual tension.
As a comedy-horror, Grabbers has to tread a fine line, displaying each genre equally; a feat seldom attempted and almost never successfully achieved. The film’s director, Jon Wright, explains the process: “We took the decision early on that we wanted to play it straight, in the sense that we wanted to do it for real. So, with very few exceptions, the whole thing is played straight as if it was really happening, and the actors were acting as if it was really happening. They’re doing drama performances, if you like, in a comedy film. I think that means that the horror isn’t compromised and the comedy becomes situation comedy. All the jokes spring out of the situation as opposed to people being quote-unquote comedy characters. The comedy comes out of the incongruous nature of this big, tentacled beast being on this remote island and they have to get drunk and all the comedy that comes out of that. So I think that’s why we managed to keep a bit of both elements.”
Deciding what works and what doesn’t is a tough call when making a comedy-horror. What works in one will ruin the other so to pull it off you need to be focused on the balance rather than what gets a laugh in the rehearsal. Wright agrees: “That was a tough thing to follow through at times because you have great jokes that we had to throw away. So for example, we had Lisa and O’Shea attacked in the jeep, and when they came inside there was a scene where Lisa wants to make toast. She goes over to the toaster and starts making toast and buttering it and she’s saying “Mmm, toast” over and over again. It didn’t feel real after a while, after what happened to them in the jeep. We lost a few jokes along the way but I don’t think it matters in the end.”
Another pitfall of the genre is the monster. At just €3.5 million, Grabbers is at a disadvantage to modern horror blockbusters. Rather than revealing their hand all at once, Wright decided to take the traditional route.
“We followed the ‘80s model. If you ever saw Jaws, they didn’t show the shark basically because the shark was rubbish, which is true of a lot of films. What you could achieve with prosthetics was quite limited so it made a lot more sense to keep the monster in shadow and hidden. It actually worked in a different way for me because when the monster is left to your imagination, I think it tends to run riot. So we played a similar trick in Grabbers where when you actually get to see the creature is quite late in the day… We had a limited number of creature shots, but we put a lot of work into them and tried to make them really good and I’m quite proud of the CG work and the effects work that’s been done.”
More important than either the comedy or the horror in any Irish production however, is how the people are portrayed. After Leap Year, most people are wary of anything that plays up Irish stereotypes in the way Grabbers does. As an Englishman with Irish parents, Jon Wright is particularly aware of this. “I think a lot of people go in kind of nervous that it’s going to be a lot of paddywhackery; an annoying riff on the idea that Irish people like a drink. It’s always been a source of annoyance to me that English films set in Ireland, they just don’t care about the authenticity of it at all. You have excellent English actors coming in who are absolutely murdering the accent and if you know the Irish accent it just bumps you out of the film completely. I actually wanted Irish people to be very happy with the movie and feel that it was poking fun at them in a nice way, not an annoying way. We wanted a film that the Irish could love as well as the rest of the world, rather than the other way around, which is how it often is.”
Grabbers is out now. It’s playing all this week in the UCD Cinema.