Fortress of Fear: Ciaran Foy on Citadel

Overcoming his agoraphobia through the screenplay to his award-winning horror film and why movies shouldn't explain everything.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


Wouldn’t you know it, the one midnight movie I missed at SXSW won the audience award. Well, I got my second chance now that Citadel opens this Friday, and I got to chat with writer/director Ciaran Foy about it. In the film, Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) becomes agoraphobic after his wife is attacked by feral teens. Only now, protecting his son, he has face the same group of teens in their tower hideout.

CraveOnline: How did you get from making short films to getting your first feature together?

Ciaran Foy: Well, my short film, The Faeries of Blackheath Woods, was fortunate enough to win a bunch of awards at various festivals. I got agency representation in the UK and LA out of that short. So many people wanted to meet me and were asking had I any feature ideas. So I had this very rough treatment of a project called Fortress of Fear, it’s the worst title you’ve ever heard. It was essentially Citadel. It was vaguely based on my own experiences with agoraphobia and a pretty vicious attack that happened to me when I was 18 and mixed with my nightmares and my geeky love of horror films. So I pitched it to this company, Blinder Films, and they really liked it. We tried to get it off the ground and it eventually took five years, but we eventually got it off the ground in the winter of 2010.

Being agoraphobic, how does a film set make you feel?

Fine. I’m over it now thankfully. This is going to sound kind of cheesy, but I found that the writing of this script incredibly therapeutic and cathartic and all that kind of stuff. Obviously I’d been getting help when I was in film school. There was a free counselor in the college there and that was helping a lot. Something she said started to trigger a lot of the ideas that were in Citadel just about people being able to see your fear and things like that. So I’d been already getting help, but in the writing of the script, because I have sort of bathed my mind in situations and scenarios that I’d rather forget, I ended up strangely echoing the arc of the main character so that in the middle of writing the script, I thought I was taking steps backwards because I was starting to feel very much panicked again. But by the end of the story, I felt empowered. It was great to be able to hold in your hand, I guess because you’re the master of your own creations, to be able to look at that and have a power over it and stuff was amazing. I highly recommend screenwriting as a form of therapy.

Would you be willing to share what event caused your agoraphobia?

Yeah, sure. I was 18 and I was a victim of a pretty vicious and unprovoked attack by a gang of youths. They were about 14 and there was five of them. I was beaten with a hammer and I had a dirty syringe held to my throat. It was something that, for me, the scariest part of the whole thing was that they didn’t want anything. They didn’t take anything. They just did it for kicks and I think about the fundamentals of terror and the fundamentals of fear. I think when you know the whys and the hows, when you know why something happens, no matter how tragic and nonsensical it may seem, when you know why somebody does something, you can eventually make a kind of peace with it in your mind. But when you never know why, and there seems to be no sort of rhyme or reason why something happens, that is just terrifying. So I developed a trauma out of that which eventually became agoraphobia and I didn’t have a word for it at the time. I was housed down for a time. I was still living with my parents and it was my battles with that and eventual recovery from that which inspired so much of Citadel.

Do movies, and especially horror movies, tend to over-explain things?

I absolutely think so. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s something that I fought on Citadel when different financers come on at different stages in the years trying to get it off the ground. One thing that people tend to get anxious about not knowing things, like, “Why are they doing this? We should have an explanation scene where we have this and that.” I kept arguing that knowledge dispenses fear. If you can leave little breadcrumbs for the audience to pick apart and talk about afterwards, that’s far more interesting and far more terrifying than being given a clean explanation. Whenever you get that inevitable scene where things are explained, you can almost feel your sense of fear and anxiety start to lift. That’s for me why so many first acts of horror films work so well and the trailer works so well because it’s all about the unexplained and it’s all about, quite literally, the darkness. When somebody turns on a light, it can destroy some of that.

For me it’s always about that balance of an audience will feel very frustrated I think if they left a film and there was absolutely no clues or hypothesis as to what something is and why something happens, but at the same time I think that when everything’s cleanly explained, for me I leave the theater and I instantly forget about the movie because there’s no overriding questions. Ultimately, when somebody is getting that sort of frustrated anxious sense of, “Yeah, but why?” There’s actually something in that. There’s actually something powerful in that. It is a form of anxiety and you can play with that. For me I thought, strangely enough, actually I had less explained about the hoods in the movie than there is in there now. But people wanted even more explanation and it was when the dark side came out, I was able to point to the character of The Joker and say to people, “You see this character, we don’t know his history, we don’t know why he does things. There’s hypotheses you can come up with but there’s no clean explanation.” That’s why people talk about him as the embodiment of chaos. Yeah, that oddly helped me to win some of my case for leaving things more on the side of mystery than fully explained.

Did you have a set of rules for the camera? It looks like it’s handheld but you have a certain angle you take on the main characters and the youths.

Yeah, I had a rule that it was purely subjective from Tommy’s point of view so I never cut to anything that he couldn’t see, or never cut to an angle that would be from another character’s perspective. I break that rule once with the death of the [SPOILER] but I felt we’d earned it at that point to sort of see what happened to that character. If he just ran off into a room and we never found out what happened to him, I always felt that we’d half expect him to show up again at the end or something. But yeah, there was that rule. Handheld, always shoulder height. I didn’t want any sort of omniscient angles or  crane moves or anything like that. The more anxious Tommy became, I tried to not cut, have extended takes and that was something I wanted more of. Going in I had this rule that when Tommy was feeling anxious or paranoid that I wouldn’t cut. The shot would just continue and continue like in real life, we don’t get a chance to blink, there’s no relief from that tension.

That was something I really wanted but what you realize quite quickly when you’ve got 23 days to shoot something and a handful of peanuts to make it with, you realize to get that dance right between the actor and camera, it takes time. It takes more time than capturing snippets of a scene and editing together. So I tried to go for a happy medium with that and yeah, we’d kind of stick on wide-angle lenses but play them up close to take on a 24, maybe a foot away from Tommy during scenes of paranoia and fear and then be the opposite when he felt about safer, a 50 angle back a bit. So when he’s in Maria’s apartment, you’re making the space just feel a bit softer, less extreme. With the scenes of fear, I always tried to keep the vanishing point in frame and keep the space feeling deep and stuff like that. Again, the opposite when he felt safe, a little bit more flat space.

Then I had sort of sonic rules as well. I think if you can give yourself rules, we had a framing rule that we’d keep Tommy as much as possible framed in different forms of rectangles so that for me, the threshold for an agoraphobic or the thing that represents the most fear or the reminder of your weakness is a door. It’s something that an agoraphobic can’t walk through so that shape became important. It was a tower, it was a tomb. So we tried to frame Tommy keeping him trapped in the tower so to speak and allowing that framing to feel a bit more open when he felt safer or when he felt more in control of his fears as it moves further into the third act. I’ve always felt the more you give yourself rules, the easier the choices become. In an odd way, when you’re on set, rather than having 250 options of how you’re going to shoot a scene, it actually makes your job easier to go, “Well, actually, I have to shoot it against that wall.” Stuff like that.

Are there any movies where you like the way they portrayed agoraphobia?

The only ones that I thought that kind of came close, and the character’s not referred to as being agoraphobic in the movie, yet it’s plainly obvious to me that she is, is Catherine Deneuve’s character in Repulsion. Yeah, Repulsion, I’m a big fan of Polanski and that film left me paranoid. Another film that’s not agoraphobic but certainly paranoid as hell is Jacob’s Ladder. Again that’s probably one of my favorite horror films. Like my favorite horrors, it’s a film you’re still thinking about two weeks later. It gets under your skin as opposed to giving you cheap frights or whatever. It’s all about atmosphere and creating a sense of mistrust and dread and that’s not easily done. For me, it’s that perfect combination of everything visual from production design, costume design, everything you see to having the perfect sonic accompaniment, having a very good sound design and score.

For me on Citadel when I was writing the film, I almost exclusively listened to what I think is one of the creepiest soundtracks ever created for a film called The Mothman Prophecies. That was done by two guys called Tomandandy. I was really struggling to find somebody who embodied what they do so effectively in combining sound design with instruments and inorganic things and organic sounds. I remember talking to my agent one day and he was like, “Who’s doing the score for you?” And I said, “I don't know, I’m listening to a lot of CDs and considering my options but I guess as close to Tomandandy as I can get.” Behind my back he sent a rough cut of Citadel to Tomandandy’s agents and Tom and Andy watched the movie and loved it and came on board, so I was very fortunate to end up having them involved in my movie, and I think have had an exponential effect on the atmosphere of the film.

What’s happened for you since SXSW?

A lot of scripts. I’m getting sent a lot of scripts from both this side of the pond and from the U.K.  I’m spending most of my weeks reading about four scripts a week. Some of the things are good, some are not so good. I’m pitching on a few things and trying to find what I want to do next which will be something I’m not going to write from scratch. I very much want to either find something new or collaborate with somebody but certainly want to stay in the realms of genre.