In his new film In Darkness, Irish director Anthony Byrne takes the cat-and-mouse crime thriller perfected by Alfred Hitchcock and gives it his own twist.
He co-wrote the screenplay with Natalie Dormer, best known as Lady Margery Tyrell in Game of Thrones and the fierce Cressida in The Hunger Games. Before that she was Anne Boleyn in The Tudors, shot in Dublin where she met Byrne. They have been a couple since.
Dormer also stars in the film as the central character, Sofia, a blind pianist who works as a studio musician playing film scores. This a great set up for the opening Hitchcock homage. Set in London, Sofia is the only witness to a possible murder when she hears a struggle in the upstairs apartment of her beautiful, mysterious neighbor, Veronique (Emily Ratajkowski), followed by a fall from the balcony. Soon there’s a pesky cop (Neil Maskell) asking clichéd questions, like whether a blind person’s other senses are more acute.
In Darkness showcases Byrne and Dormer’s ability to create a fast-paced revenge thriller with a strong lead who is both cat and mouse. At the film’s Los Angeles premiere last Wednesday, Dormer said of their co-writing process, “We know each other very well as a director and an actress, but it was a whole new skill set for us to write together, but we learned where to put the boundaries.” When it came to shooting the film their roles reversed. “When he directed me all bets were off. Then he’s the director and he has autonomy as far as I’m concerned.”
I interviewed Byrne two days later in the lobby of Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica. The charming and gregarious director was in a good mood: the New York Times just gave the film a sterling review, described it as a “clever little thriller” and noted that the screenplay he wrote with Dormer kept “the pacing tight.”
Paula Schwartz, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Talk about Si Bell’s cinematography, which is moody and beautiful, and much better on a big screen.
Anthony Byrne (AB): We used the Alexa with the Master Plan lenses we used to shoot Ripper Street, a show we made for Amazon. That’s how I met Si. We tested Master Plans, we tested anamorphic lenses, we tested Leica lenses, and I think we tested Primos as well. I preferred Master Plans. They’re beautiful lenses, but they’re quite heavy. We stripped the camera back to keep it as light as we could but then the Master Plans are actually quite heavy so we’d keep trying to balance the camera and get it weighted correctly. Si’s a really talented director of photography. He’s doing Peaky Blinders with me next. It looks great too.
MM: How intentional are all the Hitchcock references? Is the film an homage?
AB: One-hundred percent intentional. Myself and Nat [Dormer] sat home on the couch watching old thrillers, Hitchcock movies, over and over. Rear Window and Marnie were two that we were really keen on, and Frenzy, which is a nod to the scene of the woman being strangled. Vertigo, with the circular staircase, that was cool to do. There were lots, like Polanski’s London movies, and Laura, and Leave Her to Heaven. I love Gene Tierney, and Klute and The Conversation. I love that genre. There’s a huge appetite for a good thriller I think, and that was the MO. That’s what we set out to do, and had a lot of fun doing it. Trying to deconstruct it and build it back up again and it’s a lot harder than it looks.
MM: There’s detail on detail in the plot with only a little bit about Sofia revealed at a time. How difficult was it to keep the pace moving?
AB: We wanted to make a film that we would watch on the couch the way we watched all these other movies. We loved Villeneuve’s Prisoners when it came out. That’s very close to what we wanted to do with that world. It’s a really taut thriller and it didn’t set out to be anything else. That’s what we were trying to do was contribute to the canon.
MM: What I like about the film is that it has a strong and complicated female presence and she’s not passive as in some of Hitchcock’s films. Was that the idea?
AB: To be fair, for a long time she was passive. We always struggled with where to activate the story and we always enjoyed watching Sofia’s life and her rhythm and her routine and kind of being curious about what she’s seeing or not seeing, what she’s doing, how does she live her life and the details of it. But that makes her very passive. And so we realized after a few drafts that we needed to activate her and make her proactive much quicker because it just became boring, basically, And in doing so it unlocked the movie because you then had to go back over her behavior that you’d already seen in order to understand the sort of machinations of what she had set out to achieve herself and in a very brighter way so it was good.
MM: Why did you and Natalie decide to write your first feature film together?
AB: I’ve written stuff before, but I’m not a writer. My strength is as a director; Nat’s strength is as an actor. But both of us have read so many scripts, Nat more so through acting, and we knew how to write. I had the idea for the film and Nat was in a particular place in her career, where she was just very frustrated with the parts that were being offered to her. She was frustrated with the fact that she was being pigeonholed as the “sexy best friend” or somebody who was having an affair, or whatever. Nat knows the structure and the beats.
MM: Describe your co-writing process. On the red carpet Natalie told me you didn’t write in the same room.
AB: We were for awhile but then we figured out we were doing it wrong and it was divisive. We were quite hard on each other in so far as we wouldn’t let each other get away with stuff. After a while there was a conversation [about the way] David Benioff and D.B. Weiss write Game of Thrones. They email stuff to each other back and forth, they’re not in the same room. For a long time we were in the same room in our house—there’s no office, so if you had any disagreements it was a long walk with the dog, slamming doors, stuff like that. But it was all for the greater good. It was just trying to find the scene and break the beats, but I did enjoy it. The tricky part is that as a director and an actor we have two different disciplines and so there’s no competition there and we weren’t competitive writers but we were coming into an area that it’s not our skill set and then trying to make it work.
MM: How many drafts did you do?
AB: I think maybe seven to 10 proper drafts. We never kept track of revisions. We would just unpick it, write it again, sit down type it out and then that was another draft.
MM: The apartment is very Rear Window, pre-War, with high ceilings and ornate moldings. Is that why you chose it?
AB: It’s a stunning building in Earl’s court. I was looking for a little slice of Hitchcock or Polanski London, you know, like Repulsion. And what I just came to notice in U.K. cinema is that contemporary London now, it’s all skyscrapers, steel and glass. I wanted to go back to the red brick buildings, the old London buildings. We live in one and they’re very popular and beautiful buildings and part of the film’s beat involved a lift. We needed to find a building with a lift and we were very lucky to find that place.
MM: Was it difficult directing your girlfriend?
AB: Oh yeah, we’d have those conversation. We’re not afraid to have frank conversations—if we had disagreements, we had them in front of the crew. But you have to do that because there’s no time. But it was all done with good grace. We had such a good time making that movie. It was a 25 day shoot and it was just alive all the time and we were both just switched on and so present in the moment of every day so it was a real joy and she’s a great actress. MM
In Darkness is currently in theaters and On Demand courtesy of Vertical Entertainment. All images courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.