'The Cured': How David Freyne Created a Political Twist on the Zombie Flick
The director's research was key to making a monster movie with philosophical underpinnings.
What if, instead of shooting zombies, we cured them? This is the question that David Freyne's probing, thoughtful monster film opens up for discussion.
The Cured is set in Ireland and stars Ellen Page as a widow who takes in a sensitive member of "the cured," her brother-in-law, with trepidation and then later with horror as the events that took place during the zombie epidemic become clearer. The film overflows with political parallels, which it brings to blazing light with the powerful performances of its principals, Page, Kevin Seeley, and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, who plays a former barrister who became a quasi-Svengali figure during the outbreak, using his charisma to infect and command others. His activities continue after the cure, as he leads a group of vigilantes who bomb government buildings in protest of oppression of the formerly infected, to end the stigmatization.
The Cured premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and was called by RogerEbert.com "a genre film to beat in 2018." Perhaps best known for his screenwriting on Passing (2010), No Film School caught up with the director prior to the theatrical and VOD release of The Cured to talk to him about the evolution, development, and significance of his latest film.
No Film School: What was your process in developing the zombies?
David Freyne: There was a lot of work put into it, and I was lucky to have such great actors who workshopped with me. I think what we wanted to do was make sure that our infected weren’t like the traditional zombie, that it was a sickness that reverted them to an animal state; they behaved like wolves in many ways, with a pack mentality, and there was a higher intelligence in the pack.
So, in terms of developing that, we created four different modes of breathing, each of which served as a different kind of communication, whether they were scared, or angry, or giving the command to attack. So there were lots of little subtle hints at a higher intelligence, and that they can communicate with each other in a way that humans can’t understand. So that was where a lot of the work went in, to give the sense that the infected were more like wolves than undead creatures. We also wanted to make sure it seemed like they were unwell, that they had a sickness, to make it a little more human. We did a lot of research into things like rabies, and how that affects someone, whether it’s with something like hydrophobia, where they can’t drink water, so they’re salivating, and their veins are swollen, and they’re jaundiced, or some other effect. We did a lot of work on that and on the make-up as well, all by way of making sure that this felt human, like an aggressive form of rabies, and then in terms of behavior, very animal, very wolf-like.
"You had these great actors roaming around the room like wolves. It was very liberating."
NFS: In terms of working with the actors, how did that work out? Was there a training period?
Freyne: Absolutely. We did a short film, The Mill before we made the feature, and with the wonderful Jane McGrath, who was in that. I worked out different modes of communication and then the key actors and I sort of just developed this. We had a day of just messing around in a gym, and we developed these movements and this behavior and these modes of communication.
It’s a testament to the quality of the actors and their ability; they really intellectualized it and worked on it so they understood what each breath would mean, like when Conor commands Senan to do things, or the breath when they’re huddling. Those workshops were a lot of fun! You had these great actors roaming around the room like wolves. It was very liberating.
NFS: How much did the film's numerous political dimensions, given Irish history and the shifts in power taking place in Europe and around the globe, affect your direction?
Freyne: A lot. It obviously affected the writing process; it’s evident from a lot of the stuff going on in the film. Ireland’s having a bit of a resurgence, but at that time it was bitter and depressed, and a lot of businesses were at the edge of being shut down. For the world in recovery in the film, we wanted to bring that sense of decay to it, so we focused on rundown parts of the city, we focused on dilapidation, and we created a lot of poster work, based on Russian propaganda art, that fed into a lot of the politics that was happening at the time. This let us do a lot of storytelling in the background without having to be too pedantic with it. We wanted this to feel like a modern world, not too post-apocalyptic, but one that was struggling, even though it was somewhat in recovery.
NFS: Did your direction change after Trump was elected?
Freyne: All the stuff that happened when he was elected, which I could never have predicted, I think was a symptom of what was happening at the time I was writing it. In hindsight, he makes sense. All those political figures influenced the main antagonist, Conor’s, character, so that was always a part of it. But when you see things like Brexit happen, and then Trump was elected not too long afterward, more than anything it had an influence on the actors. Having that happen just before you’re going into rehearsal has a big impact on you. You feel like you’re in a post-apocalypse, and that, in a sad way, helps. That fed into the performance more than anything, certainly more than the production. It certainly had an impact on Ellen’s character. She has to play "happy families" and put a smile on for this boy, but deep down her world is crumbling, and the country she lives in is giving in to hate. Sadly, that was a big motivation.
"Ultimately, for our society to work, we need to believe in humanity."
NFS: What would you say is the importance of trust and distrust in the film, in terms of the way the humans view the cured, and vice versa?
Freyne: I think that’s implicit without being conscious. I think the overarching message of the film is that you can’t give in to fear and hate. But I wanted all those areas to be shades of gray rather than black and white. I think you can certainly sympathize with people who are scared—it's understandable that that fear is there. With Ellen’s character, it’s understandable that she would have doubts and fear about the infected, and fears about why they’re staying in containment.
However, I don’t think understanding and agreeing are the same thing. We can understand each person's perspective, but we don’t have to agree with them. It’s very important for me that we can feel where others are coming from, with all these different viewpoints. Ultimately, for our society to work, we need to believe in humanity. I think we dehumanize people so much in society now, and use people as scapegoats for what’s wrong, and I think it’s important that we do trust people, and we don’t give in to that hate, and that we have faith that people have good interests, the best at heart. That’s something I think we’ve forgotten in recent times.
NFS: In the film, only 75 percent of the infected become successfully cured. What was the importance of that, for the story?
Freyne: That comes from research and reality. Very few medical cures are 100 percent effective. There's always a failure rate. So, that’s natural. The idea that it would be 100 percent didn’t feel right. The idea that there’s a resistant strain is based on research onto different medications. I think it was nice, as well, that the film builds like a pressure cooker throughout, and you have this growing tension. And the idea that you have this fear in the background, and this uncertainty about whether you’ve eliminated them or not, gives the film a tension throughout that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. Also, society can easily move backwards, and the idea that there’s a threat in which society could revert back to that warlike period, that chaos, if we allow fear to rule us—that threat only works if you have the infection still existing in some form.
"Ingmar Bergman's 'Persona' was a huge influence, particularly in the way the male characters' personalities begin to meld and blend together."
NFS: What was the span of the research you did for the film?
Freyne: I did a lot of medical research, as well as a lot of research on PTSD. I read The Greatest Generation, the World War II book, which was totally fascinating. How it affects different people is really interesting. For instance, you might have people who stammer, people who don’t speak--these reactions often were a class thing. I also did a lot of research on the way different vets were treated when they came back from war, depending on the war, whether it was Vietnam or World War II, which caused very different reactions.
I also researched post-war zones such as Iraq, and how the interim forces took over when America supposedly left the country—situations like the one in which the UN forces and the US were both there and they couldn’t leave for different reasons. This usually left Iraq in a worse state, which opens up the argument as to whether they should have been there in the first place. As far as films, I watched a lot of genre films like zombie films, but there were other films too. I loved Animal Kingdom, David Michod’s film, for its family dynamic. Ingmar Bergman's Persona was a huge influence, particularly in the way the male characters' personalities begin to meld and blend together. That seems like the best horror film that isn’t seen as a horror film that really is a horror film. There’s also, of course, 28 Days Later. Children of Men is another one that creates a world with its backstory, on the production side. We tried to do that, on a budget.
NFS: There are many different kinds of fear. What would you say is the most important kind of fear for this film?
Freyne: The fear is the fear of the other, which is what we see now. People are scared of things they don’t necessarily understand, or that their culture doesn’t understand, and that’s not right but that’s what’s happening. So the overarching theme is that you can’t give in to that, that we’ve got to stop viewing people as a race, or a religion, or as immigrants, and start to see them as people, with common goals and loves and lives.