Ciarán Hickey

CIARÁN HICKEY is a boy/man/thing who specialises in WRITING and DIRECTING filmS (pronounced ‘fill-ums’). 

A graduate of the esteemed NATIONAL FILM SCHOOL IADT, Co. Dublin, his AWARD-WINNING work has shown all over the world at various prestigious film festivals hosted in the likes of LOS ANGELES, Hong Kong, London, Chicago, Poland and across his native Ireland.

With a strong critical mind and  visual – as well as narrative – style constructed around the mantra ‘what’s weird is wonderful‘, Ciarán is a committed and insightful creative force dedicated to spearheading new and STIMULATING material for an ever-changing global audience. 

Alter Films

Terrible Things

Q & A

Name a Horror character you relate to on a spiritual/personal level?

I need to be careful here or else I’ll be put onto some kind of list. Probably Ash Williams from the Evil Dead franchise (but specifically Army Of Darkness in this case). I mean, I’ll never be as cool as Bruce Campbell spitting one-liners while firing a boomstick from his one working non-chainsaw hand – but a man can dream.

You’ve gotta go through some bad ideas to get to the good ones. Tell us one of your bad ideas. How do you get past the bad ones to find your spark?

I think my worst ideas have usually been the uninspired ones, as in the by-the-numbers ‘would wind up on Netflix only to underwhelm after 10-minutes’ kinda ones. It’s hard to say – I like most of my ideas, it’s just when they get put to paper (or screen) that the holes and failings become rapidly apparent and they fall off my radar. An idea that’s objectively fine but I have no idea currently what to do with is about a company that specializes in telling you how you die in about 10 words or so, but one guy comes in and is basically told the most ridiculous death possible and the story/script is effectively him trying to piece together how it could feasibly happen. It’d be a horror/comedy thing, with the horror coming in around the prophesized deaths themselves. Bit of a Hot Fuzz over-the-top gore type deal. Hopefully that’s not too much of a cop out answer? I’m sure I’ve had some horrible ideas – I know I have – but my brain is blanking on any specific one now probably as a kind of defense mechanism. As for getting past them and finding that all elusive spark, my only ever success personally has involved being patient and trusting that the time will come for the right idea to take flight. I’ve stared at pages for days without writing a thing and then other weeks written feature treatments in 2 hours for projects I hadn’t figured of the day before at all. The muse is a cruel mistress and the process is different across the board. Just keep at it is the main takeaway here I’d say.

Do you consider yourself part of a horror community?

In so much as I have a few friends who share the love of monsters and ghoulies and all that good stuff, absolutely! Plus there’s a project with my name on it doing the rounds on the ALTER airwaves so that has to count too, right?

When you’re building the world of your film, where do you look for inspiration?

Largely what I’m watching/playing/reading at the time. I’m very easily influenced. It’s great when your brain is tickled just the right way and then it starts going off on tangents by itself. Bit annoying when it’s 4am and you’re trying to sleep, sure, but worth it if you get even the whisps of a concrete concept out of it all. Once the world has its rough shape though the gloves kind of come off and you really just throw visual and thematic choices at the proverbial wall to see what not just sticks but sticks organically. For example, in Terrible Things the world was defined by death as inflicted by a now-murderous Mother Nature. So in building what that might look like while still adhering to a budget it all came down to angry-looking skies, toxic fog-drenched wastelands, basically anything threatening and ominous – even destructive – that we’d recognize as being inherently very natural and of this world. Plus I’m a big Denis Villeneuve fan so obviously mist/fog had to get in there somehow. Then, just to play against the type of a broken war-torn civilization that you’d find in a lot of apocalypse films, we leaned into the stillness and more ‘abandoned’ aesthetic of the interior locations – as if whoever had occupied them had gotten 2 minutes into this end of days scenario before falling prey to it. That suited us budget-wise but also gave more of an eerie vibe too. Mainly though it was because we had no money for locations and I didn’t want to wreck the cinematographer’s house where we shot. I’d never hear the end of it.

What would you do if you woke up inside of your film?

I wouldn’t exactly be dancing for joy anyway. Honestly, assuming I just wake up sans gas mask I’d probably last about two minutes. Five, tops. Maybe the more exciting answer would be to go full Mad Max straight away and do up one of the abandoned cars to go off monster-hunting. But that’s the Ash Williams in me talking. Again, I’m just not that cool.

Who would be on your ultimate horror villain squad?

My Dark Avengers? Love it. I mean, you’d want a crowd that could be communicated with for the most part so that rules out some favs like The Thing. Again, give me Ash Williams in all his chainsaw glory then pair him up with Nic Cage from Mandy, maybe Ripley then from Alien so it’s not such a boys club. I’m wracking my brains for some monster companions. You can’t really beat the classics with Dracula and the Wolfman, but swap them out with versions from the Gary Oldman movie and then Dog Soldiers respectively and then you’ve got that lovely modern sinister aesthetic going on. Actually, Eli from Let The Right One In could be a wildcard Drac replacement there. The Gilman from his Shape Of Water appearance could afford a lovely bit of heart to proceedings too. And Godzilla from the 1954 film. Because you’d need a Hulk. Or Jason instead, for that non-humongous ‘human’ touch. It feels like I should say Freddy too just in case there’s a need for any Inception-esque dream warfare. Was there a limit on how many could be in this thing??

Lightning round: Freddy or Jason? Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft? Practical or CGI? Post Apocalypse or Pre Apocalypse?

Freddy for the sheer imagination of him. H.P. Lovecraft for the literal madness of it. Practical always – CGI is cool as hell but nothing beats the in-camera excitement or look. And Post-Apocalypse by a smidge just for the visual playground it affords.

How do you go about creating the props and sets for your film? How do you create objects that are relatable but unfamiliar?

I’ll take a stab at this as it somewhat applies given the ‘all hands on deck’ nature of most all my work thus far. Usually I go for texture – neatness and uniformity of course has its place but I love that which looks lived and rough to the touch even through a camera screen. In Terrible Things we focused a lot on dust to get that apocalyptic texture across. It’s something we see everyday but in excess it’s just alarming and looks great on-camera. With the Wanderer’s gear it was all again about looking lived and weathered, just really ragtag. It’s always ideal to generate stories about certain props and things as well. For example, with the Wanderer you can spot masking tape around sleeves and certain points of her attire to kind of sell the idea that while travelling the wastes it’s best to keep skin covered. Even her gloves are taped to her sleeves to insulate her whole get-up. So I suppose the real guiding star across my own approach to sets and props, all that stuff, is to inform always the key narrative and world of the project and to offer little stories to complement the big one being told. As for making stuff feel relatable but familiar, visually I’ve found that comes down to placement. A perfectly kept child’s teddy bear sat in a hellish wasteland populated by colossal monsters is going to stand out, maybe even come across as a little off-putting in its own right. Contrast, I suppose, would be the key there. On a larger scale you’d want to twist what we know as well to just sit in the audience’s minds those few degrees off center of what feels comfortable. A living room is a living room and something we recognize no problem, but drench it in dust and sit a corpse on the sofa and you’ve got yourself a different scenario altogether. Again, stories within stories would be my own guiding star most always.

What scares you, and does it inspire your storytelling?

What scares me is this whole filmmaking thing! It’s been said a billion times but it’s a tough nut to crack, this industry. I think I quit it in my head about two or three times a day and contemplate a new cushy life in accounting or software development. But I always find myself roped back in planning new projects and stories by the end of said days – one’s I have no conceivable means of immediately making unfortunately but such is the lay of the land! Something scary that certainly informs my storytelling though is climate change. It’s no new topic by any means but we’re still not getting our act together. Terrible Things is founded in the idea of filicide – of Mother Nature opting to just kill us off altogether because in no uncertain terms we’ve long had our go of it and continually mucked it up. That concept is explored more deeply through a human lens by way of the Wanderer and her ‘corpsified’ acquaintance who have similarly done these ‘terrible things’ – killing off their children, mainly – as a means of mercy. So you have the older generation killing off the younger and calling it ‘being a parent’, is what I’m getting at. I mean, when you have wealthy American politicians – all likely family men and women with children at home they insist they’ll do anything for – and they go to the G8 Summit of all places and pitch oil as an a-okay resource? To my mind that’s filicide, just a very slow version of it. And that’s just one example! It’s a grey area thing as well – people trudging into a mine to dig up coal as their employment just so they can feed a crying baby back home, I mean, that’s not enviable and in the human sense it’s damn admirable. But the bigger picture of industry and nature? There’s no clear-cut solution at this stage of things. A lot of our survival in the short-form is contributing to collective extinction in the long. We’ve pigeon-holed ourselves as a species it feels like. Honestly, it’s humans that are scary as shit – even when they’re being paternal/maternal.

And finally, Ghostface would like to know ‘What’s your favourite scary movie?’

I’m going to have to be wholly unoriginal here – a ‘basic bitch horror fan’ – and say John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s a masterpiece. I can’t fault it. The score, the cast, the setting, the direction – it all just coalesces and sings so beautifully in the most horrific way because, well, it’s The Thing. And the ending, that’s a chef’s kiss of an ending. It’s just a winner through-and-through.

Tell us about the monster in your film. What is it - or they - about?

I talked before about the core concept of the short being filicide, of older generations directly damaging or else just outright robbing the future promised to their children by means of apparently providing for them. You know, the oil tycoon pushing his environmentally unfriendly business because it puts food on the table for the kids – the kids who will need that same world that’s being damaged in the long run. So there was this idea of inheritance, of parents creating a world not for their children but something else entirely. And that’s what the monsters are and represent. They’re the true inheritors; they’re what can feasibly thrive and live in such hellish conditions. Monsters at home in a world inadvertently built just for them. These huge, faceless, soulless, mishappen, hulking things. And, ironically, we end on the notion that our protagonist is going to take an axe to one of them as well. Of course, you know, in designing the things and plotting out their own origin and stuff there was a working theory – are they aliens or whatever – but the core idea was always that they were the real children of this new damaged earth. The image of a civilization’s failings, given monstrous shape. I’m also a big kaiju nut so, you know, having them at all was just pure indulgence as well.