Lee Cronin pictured with Seána Kerslake. Image Credit: Fetch Publicity

New Irish set-and-made movie, The Hole in the Ground, is currently out in cinemas, scaring up the masses. It stars Seána Kerslake as single-mother Sarah whom starts to suspect that her son Chris, played by James Quinn Markey, might not be her son anymore. It’s a great take on the changeling monster, and one that is certain to give you the creeps.

Written by writer and first-time feature director Lee Cronin, The Hole in the Ground taps into pretty much every fear going, and makes for an uneasy watch. The film debuted at Sundance to rave reviews and has generated a lot of buzz here in the UK, with many comparing it to the likes of Hereditary and The Babadook. With such praise, Cronin certainly seems to be a filmmaker to watch so we were thrilled to get a chance to chat with him on release day.

So The Hole in the Ground is in UK cinemas now, are you excited?

Yeah! I’m really pleased. We’re out in Ireland today as well. It’s as wide a release as we can have in Ireland, and then I’m really happen with our screen numbers in the UK as well. It can be hard to get independent horror out there, but it seems to have found a home which is great.

The legend of the changeling has been a parent’s worst nightmare for centuries, but what was it about the creature and mythology that interested you?

I think if I was being really honest, it’s just the basics of what that mythology is, what I was interested in. Rather than necessarily digging deeper trying to define it. I think the notion, what it really is, what I always get attracted to, is the reality that comes out of the fantastical. I always go, ‘well what if that really existed?’ If that really existed, and you faced a situation where someone you love is in your life, but they’re not really them. They look like them, sound like them, move like them, but there was just something in your core tells you it’s not them…I think that’s a really frightening prospect. So the very nature of that idea I suppose is the key thing that drew me towards it. I saw an opportunity to use it in this story where I could kind of throw these cracks between this mother and son.

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Recent years have seen a bit of a spike in films featuring single mothers raising children, in particular young boys. What do you think it is about this dynamic that makes it so intriguing to storytellers?

I hate saying I don’t know; but I can only speak for why I was drawn to it. For me, it was just a really strong character and that dynamic. For me it’s less than even necessarily the mother thing, it was just the single parent idea, which most times is a woman. I was drawn to that dynamic. I have huge respect for any single parent and how they operate, it’s quite an enormous challenge to take on. I guess it probably magnifies a lot of fears and anxieties that exist when you don’t have someone else to lean on, maybe on a day-to-day basis to discuss the raising of another human. Within that dynamic, I think it’s really interesting.

When you were making the film, were there any films that you looked to for inspiration aesthetically or otherwise?

The aesthetic is something that myself and my DP just instinctively wanted. Yes we use visual references here and there, but we’ve been working together for a while and have developed our style together, we know what we like. I think in terms of things that I did… and obviously there are a few nods to The Shining. That film impacted me at eight years old and got under my skin at a really young age, and has always been there as part of my influence. I looked towards two… particularly of Polanski’s apartment trilogy being Rosemary’s Baby and also Repulsion, which just for that very singular female POV. The idea that you’re trapped alone in a situation and the people around you are not necessarily there to be trusted. So those two movies from a psychological point of view were certainly things I was thinking about.

I think one of the interesting things is that even though the film in a lot of ways is being received as a creepy kid story, I didn’t lean into any previous films from that cannon at all. It just wasn’t on my radar because I was always telling this mother/son story, rather than just trying to create a creepy kid, it’s just one of the circumstances of the film.

Was the wallpaper one of the nods to The Shining?

(Laughs) Yeah, it sure was. The anecdote on that is that it wasn’t something that I asked for at all. When we were getting to that point, and we were in the middle of the shoot, I was brought five options for ‘what’s the wallpaper going to be when it’s gone up?’ Just amongst them was that pattern and I was like, ‘I can’t not put that on the wall’. Even though I know some people will think it’s a really heavy nod, I was just, ‘I can’t not choose that wallpaper right now’. I didn’t seek it out, but when it was put in front of me, I was unable to turn it down.

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Being an independent film, I’m guessing the film had a fairly modest budget, did this raise any challenges during the shoot?

Look, it was healthily budgeted for a debut feature and my funders and my producers – and this isn’t even just a pat on the back for them – truthfully allowed me to put nearly everything up on screen that I could. I was given ample opportunity. There’s always challenges with low budget films, there’s little things I would have loved, maybe a little more atmosphere here and there with rain sheets and things like that, but you just live with the realities. When you’re making a film, there’s a little bit of compromise to be done. You’re earning your stripes and you’re proving your value as well as a first time filmmaker by being able to handle some of the things that you have to compromise on. I think at the same time you fight for everything, you really do.

The film contains spiders, closed-in spaces and a lot of shots of froth on tea / bubbles etc., meaning the film taps into the pure fear felt by suffers of arachnophobia, claustrophobia and trypophobia [fear of groups of small holes]. Then there’s being buried alive, and being alone in the dark – it’s almost like you were working through a list of common phobias. Was it a conscious decision to try and tap into as many base fears as possible?

I think rather than me looking at those base fears and analysing them, and thinking, ‘can I put them in here?’, what I’m always seeking is to pull horror out of domestic situations. One for example, that’s come up afterwards is misophobia, which is chewing sounds and breathing, that can really unsettle people. There’s a Hell of a lot of that in there as well. But what I was trying to do is magnify these domestic circumstances. Personally, I am an arachnophobic. That was something I was interested in putting in the film, even though I didn’t enjoy having real spider on set (laughs). I was not particularly comfortable with that situation. Although we were in a creepy old house that was full of spiders anyway. I think even one of the spiders featured was actually trapped in the house – he was cast live in the situation.

Look of course, you are making a horror movie, you are trying to lean into [things]. I was aware of the claustrophobic nature of it, I was aware people would feel uncomfortable. But at the same time, I was trying to use these things because I felt they were appropriate rather than it maybe being a very calculated choice to do a check list of those things. At the same time, I’m very happy when people respond to all those phobias because my job, when I’m making a movie like this, is I want people to be as uncomfortable as possible in their seat.

I think particularly randomly the tea and the foam on the bubble bath, I was watching the film going ‘you’re going to give people heart attacks and you’ve not even got to the try horror of the piece yet’.

It’s fun to do stuff like that. Once I had to set a tension in place – I really try and control that clockwork mechanism. I did try and use every situation you enter. For example, the sequence where Sarah goes and investigates Chris’ bedroom. It was always clear to me that that kid is going to have arranged all the Lego blocks in order. That was always an idea that was there. Even in that moment, a mother just having a gawk around her kid’s room, and you suddenly feel unsettled. Even how he’s doing his homework in the car, it’s a very subtle thing, but he’s doing it with a kind of vigour that doesn’t exist with a kid. So even in the most basic places, I was looking at keeping the tension.

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You got great performances from both of your leads. What in the audition process was it about them that made you so certain that they were your Sarah and Chris?

It’s two completely different stories so I’ll tell them as reasonably quickly as I can. With Seána, when I had first written the screenplay or was getting closer to making the film, the character skewed a bit older. A little bit more of a traditional horror mother for want of a better description. I did feel in my heart, ‘I just feel like we could have something a bit more interesting’. It was my producer that came to me with the idea of Seána. My instant response, and I’ve said this to Seána so she won’t mind me saying, was ‘no, I don’t think she’s the type of actor I’m looking for at all.’ He insisted I watch a particular movie, and five minutes after watching the movie I called him up and said, ‘listen, rip up the list that we have, get me a meeting with her!’ She read the screenplay, we sat down and had a coffee and we discussed it, and I offered her the role that night. That was that. There was no actual audition or taping or anything.

I just knew instinctively. What it boiled down to was her ability to share internal emotions by saying very, very little. It was a very powerful tool that I thought could make her a really unique prospect. I wanted to create this quiet hero, that was always in my mind, and she was just able to step into that mantle. Once I cast her, I went back and cut maybe thirty percent of dialogue out of the film actually. An example would be, I had a scene where she’s talking to someone about the fact she’s considering taking medication, but in the end she can do that with a look, show the consideration. Lot’s of great actors can, but Seána just has something different. I think her ability to use her eyes to again share emotion can really eat up an audience on a big screen.

With James it was the more thorough process of casting a young performer. We taped and auditioned a lot of kids. You know what you want, but you’re also looking for someone to challenge you slightly in the best possible way. James was also there, he was always in the reckoning. Whatever new direction we would go, and we’d look at another group, he was always in our thoughts. He really has a stunning ability to take direction. There’s so many places you can put him and you can ask him to pull back on one thing while introducing another little emotion element to it. Just ‘be more serious’, and then he does it and you’re like, ‘actually just be that tiny, tiny bit less,’ he can be very, very accurate in what he does. That was really what I saw in him, his ability to be totally accurate. But nonetheless when you’re working with an eight year old, until you bring them out there in front of the lights, camera, action situation, you are kinda crossing your fingers a little. Within a hour, I think everybody was, ‘oh my God, this kids a star.’ I remember the first week constantly talking to my assistant director and the two of us would just be going, ‘he’s amazing,’ we were just so relieved the entire time.

Kids have always been a staple in horror films, but one thing that has always been at the back of my mind is when making them, and here James has some high intensity scenes, how on Earth do you make them and try to not traumatise them with all this scary stuff?

It’s all about context. First of all you communicate very early on what’s happening, both to him and his parents. Communication is key, so that by the time you come and do something intense, it’s just like any other part of the process at that point. I think if you really step back and look at the film, he would have seen a lot of that stuff as fun. Also you’re not lying to him. You’re not trying to pretend it’s fun, you’re explaining that, ‘right now this monstrous version of you wants to attack and beat-up its mother to protect itself.’ I would always still tell him the truth. But you do that in a way where I wouldn’t have gone heavily deep into the undertones of domestic violence, I would have just said, ‘your mum and dad in the story didn’t get on.’ You have to be somewhat protective of his young nature. A lot of the times when it came to the tougher stuff like buried heads and fight scenes, he found it fun. But his ability to turn on the sinister was quite powerful. It all felt natural and his parents were comfortable with what we were doing at those times. He really enjoyed the process, I don’t think he left too scarred.

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You mentioned earlier that you were pretty much James’ age when you started watching films like The Shining, when do you think an appropriate age is to introduce kids to this stuff. I was seven when I watched the first three Alien films.

I would have Alien around seven or eight as well. Look, I’m old school in that way. It’s a really hard question to answer because I think what horror films give you, is a powerful emotion that is a good thing to understand at a young age. Obviously there’s certain things, like my nieces and nephews because I’m a horror film director, mysteries and thrillers in that kind of space, they’ve always been at me to show them stuff, but I’d still be really cautious in what I do. I shared The Blair Witch Project with my nine year old niece recently because it’s not too hard, but also she wanted to watch a scary movie. I think you have to be cautious in what you do share. It’s interesting these days as well when you share some horror [with the younger generation], like a couple of my other nieces recently, they would have been both around fourteen. We sat down and we watched A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Shining back-to-back. They thought A Nightmare on Elm Street was ridiculous and silly, and didn’t find it scary for a second.

What?!

Yeah yet they found The Shining absolutely terrifying, which was kind of amazing. It’s all about perspective, and I guess it comes down to the kid themselves. I don’t want to be pushing parents to show their kids horror movies. Having said that, they’re more than welcome to share this film with their children if they want to take them to the cinema (laughs).

But isn’t it strange, we obviously were brought up in a very different time. There’s twenty years between me and my younger brother, I was allowed to watch Aliens, Predator etc. at a very young age, whereas he’s fourteen now and still hasn’t seen any films like that. Even in the same family, views have completely changed.

I wonder if people just think the world is tough enough as it is at the moment. I’m just so glad I got those kicks as a kid. I realised something really interesting, I cannot remember who I was speaking to about it, but it was some other interview I’ve done. Somebody mentioned the idea that a little bit like comedy, as a horror director are you trying to impress people around you. I thought that was really interesting way of looking at it. I was thinking back to how being the youngest in my family, by a good decade, watching them react to horror movies was also part of the buzz that I got. I actually wonder in a way of that was that part of the inspiration for me getting drawn into these kind of things. To create those thrills. When you’re the youngest you’re essentially always the clown in the family, you perform that function. In my way, I think the tricks I was trying to play were all the scary version. The scary gag to get that reaction. So I’m really glad I did have that young education in the horror space because it really formed my voice at a very early age.

So now that The Hole in the Ground is out in the world, what’s next?

I’m working on a couple of projects. I have a screenplay for a film called Box of Bones, which is a supernatural thriller that I’m working on with the producers of The Hole in the Ground. That may be what we’d like to do next. I also have a screenplay based on my short film Ghost Train, which is probably on a little bit of a longer development cycle. I think for me, the next film will be in the horror space leaning a bit more into a ghost story. Moving forwards, thrillers and mysteries and telling stories that move people’s asses closer to the edge of the seat, that’s what I’m after.

The Hole in the Ground is in UK cinemas now, read our full review here