Ivan Kavanagh gets personal in his horror film ‘Son’

Courtesy of RLJE Films

Ivan Kavanagh is the mind behind the epic Irish-American thriller Son.

Ivan (Never Grow Old, The Canal) wrote and directed Son which stars Andi Matichak (Halloween, Assimilate), Emile Hirsch (Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Into the Wild, Milk), and Luke David Blumm (The King of Staten Island).

Film synopsis: After a mysterious group of individuals breaks into Laura’s home and attempts to steal her eight-year-old son, David, the two of them flee town in search of safety. Breaut soon after the failed kidnapping, David becomes extremely ill, suffering from increasingly sporadic psychosis and convulsions. Following her maternal instincts to save him, Laura commits unspeakable acts to keep him alive but soon, she must decide how far she is willing to go to save her son.

What inspired this story?

Ivan: The birth of my first son. Five and a half years ago now. He had a really difficult birth. We were really worried about him for the first few months of his life. He had a lot of sleepless nights and it was really stressful. And during that time, I could see how close my wife was getting to our son. I could see how strong really, I mean I’ve read about it or heard about it before that the mother-child bond is so strong, it’s much stronger than the father-child bond. I got to thinking about a mother who loves her son, more than anything else. Is there anything she wouldn’t do to protect him? How far would she go to protect him? During those sleepless nights, I began to jot down ideas and it started from there.

What inspired the cult and satanic aspects of the story?

Ivan: It is to keep the audience guessing all the way through to whether Laura was telling the truth or not. We’ve all read about these conspiracy theories about St. Helens Cult, some are true, some are not, but they’re mostly like crazy people who think these things are real or maybe they are real, who knows? But I wanted to use that so the audience isn’t quite sure, if she is making this up. It sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory. And I kind of did that in the construction of the film as well, where in one scene, we show what she sees and we think it’s real but then somebody turns that around and says, ‘in fact, she’s crazy, she was making the whole thing.’ And then the next thing after that it seems real again. The scene after that someone else says, ‘No, in fact, what you see and what she’s saying is not real.’ It was a way to keep the audience guessing all the way through and, of course, the demon and the satanic stuff is just all a metaphor for the real evil in the world which is people. Whether this cult was worshipping a demon or not, they’d find something else to excuse the horrible things that they’re doing. 

Courtesy of RLJE Films
What do you think sets this film apart from other horror films that use some of the same elements?

Ivan: For me, it is a personal element. I always try to pull from my fears and anxieties. And in this case, it was my own anxiety of worrying about a child, worrying that you’re not able to take care of them, that helplessness you feel when you see a child who’s sick and you can’t do anything for them, that went to the film. I hope that kind of personal emotion, that real emotion poked through in the film as well as the performances. I think there’s real emotion there mixed with all the fantastic stuff and I hope that sets it apart. I don’t know, it’s similar in a way but a different one. It’s very personal to me.

Because it’s such a personal story for you. Did that pose any sort of challenge?

Ivan: From the very beginning of every film I’ve made, I’ve tried to make some sort of personal element to it, you know, personal emotions and fears and anxieties. I’ve always tried to pour that into my films because the films I love are by directors who did that. My favorite director is Ingmar Bergman and he completely poured his whole life and anxieties and spirit into his films. I’ve always admired that so it always felt like a natural thing with the writing, for me to do and at the same time, I’m never precious about anything. I let the film show me the way, if you know what I mean. So, I often divert from the script if I see something on the day or something an actor does that is much better than what I have written. I give the actors a lot of freedom and room to do improv as well. Even though it’s personal, there’s no real extra pressure on me, it feels like a natural thing to do to me.

What was it like seeing such a personal story to you, come to life in this way?

Ivan: I pretty much see all the shots of the film and even the sound, I imagine in a way. In a way, my job as an artist and director is to try and get what’s in my head onto the screen and when it works, it’s just absolutely amazing, it’s an amazing feeling. There’s nothing better. Writing starts, for me, in my office, writing on my own and all of a sudden, there’s 200 people on the set and we’re all trying to get what I wrote on the page onto the screen, you know, there’s no better feeling than that. A lot of the time, it’s even better than what I wrote. There’s no greater joy in life and that’s why I keep going back to it. No matter how difficult the shootings are, no matter how painful the shoot is, I just keep going back because I love it so much. I knew from the moment that I started making films that this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. If you’re doing something you love in your life, you’ll never work a day in your life. It’s just the best feeling.

Emile Hirsch and Luke David Blumm in ‘Son.’ Courtesy of RLJE Films
Luke David Blumm plays David, Laura’s son. Luke is very young, but he has an incredibly large role, what was it like directing him throughout all of this? 

Ivan: I’ve directed kids now in pretty prominent roles and my last three films and it’s all about casting with them, when you’re working with kids. We actually found Luke very, very late in the process. I think we auditioned about 500 kids. We were about three weeks away from the shoot when we found Luke. And Luke was, it blew me away, he was so incredible, so natural on camera. And the moment I saw [Luke’s self tape] I ran to the producer and I said ‘I found the kid!’ He was perfect. So the next day I arranged to meet him and his father in Atlanta, where they’re from. And I went down and I did some improv and talked to him. What is amazing with Luke is that there is no difference between on camera and off, it’s just natural. He’s a naturally gifted actor. Luke’s father, Matthew, is also an actor himself. And so I was able to say to Matthew, you, not Luke, should watch Cries and Whispers by Ingmar Bergman. Watch how the woman, who is dying of cancer, watch how she reacts to the pain, and if you can, convey that to Luke. And that’s what he did, he coached Luke on how to do that and then when he came on to set, all I had to do was push Luke a little bit further and tweak his performance, and he’s just amazing. Such an intelligent kid. With horror stuff, and I’ve done this before with Canal, it just needs to be treated like a game so they never know they’re in a horror film. To them, it’s just a movie. So, we showed him how everything works, we showed him the mechanics and the makeup. And the kids love all of that icky stuff and gooey stuff so it’s just a game to him. And then if there’s anything too frightening, I shoot his shots first, take him out of the room and then shoot the opposite angles. But Luke was amazing. I mean Luke’s performance, most actors would find that difficult. But at the end of the day, shoot, Luke didn’t want to leave he had so much fun.

So, if you had eight arms, would you hide them in your shirt or would you show them off?

Ivan: Oh, definitely show them off, I’d be so proud. Think of all the writing I could do with eight arms! It’d be amazing!

Son hits theaters, On Demand and Digital today March 5.