A Twisted Community Descend on an Unsuspecting Driver in Ciaran Lyons’ ‘The Motorist’

Whilst it isn’t technically a folk horror, Ciaran Lyons’ The Motorist evokes the similar unease you might find in films like Blood on Satan’s Claw or The Wicker Man. It sees a young driver in the aftermath of a wreckage become encompassed by a group of cult-like individuals who proceed to envelop his vehicle. Lyons’ film is a dark and disturbing fable of tech-phobic malaise. We caught up with the film’s director below, where he explains the intense challenges that faced during their remote production.

What was the genesis of The Motorist?

I was interested in the idea of forcibly subjecting someone to sensory deprivation as a form of punishment. A wrong-doer seeking to avoid consequences or justice by hiding from the outside world, and then finding that it’s much worse when justice isn’t allowed to run its course externally, but has to work itself out from within. If someone is paralysed with guilt and shame, then it can actually be a kind of release to face some kind of ‘real’ punishment; a sense of being able to return to the light with your head held high after having paid your debts. By comparison, maybe being trapped alone with your own demons could lead to a much deeper destruction, a transformation into something beyond redemption. I liked the idea of the car as an extension of self, like a big, cumbersome physical body The Motorist’s soul becomes trapped inside.

The addition of Belphegor as the demonic figure came later, after I saw the 15th century painting of Saint Wolfgang In Conversation with Belphegor. Belphegor is the demon of technological innovation, and is supposed to lead humanity to ruin by tempting them with technology. In the 15th century, people whispered about Wolfgang being in league with Belphegor after he built a church with a massive roof span, people were worried that it would lead to a distancing from nature if we were able to create such large indoor spaces. This seems like a small concern in comparison to present day techno-anxiety, but it made me think: what if we did change as a result of Wolfgang’s mischief? We’ve already crossed so many transition points, but we don’t feel troubled by those that lie behind us, only those in front of us. Whatever we lose, we become blind to. Anyway, those two strands of thought clicked together to create something pretty bizarre. That’s where The Motorist came from.

That’s really interesting. Did engaging with those visual influences aid what would, in turn, become your cinematography?

I wanted the film to feel allegorical, like a fairytale, but in a stern and intense way, rather than a light-hearted or whimsical way. Michael Haneke’s Time of The Wolf was the level of intensity I was aiming for. I’m fully aware that the story is absurd, bordering on ridiculous, but I want to challenge viewers to try and take it seriously. Some people see the comedy in it, and some don’t, which is actually what I wanted to achieve. So, I have to thank Director of Photography David Liddell for doing such a great job in creating the film’s striking visual aesthetic, he’s fantastic at grasping storytelling concepts and ambitions, no matter how weird, and translating them into visual reality.

It might be a strange question but when you were casting, were you looking for actors who could deliver an unsettling cult-like sensibility?

I wanted ‘The Outsiders’ and ‘The Motorist’ to feel like they belonged to two different worlds. The Motorist, portrayed by John Cooke, is meant to feel more like us, as contemporary people who make stupid mistakes everyday. John did a great job in bringing an empathetic through-line to such a weird story. ‘The Outsiders’ were meant to feel more other, the fairy tale element, a community outside of time who sit in judgement over us. I was very lucky to get Douglas Russell at the head of them all as The Priest, he emanates such strange gravitas, which was crucial for the whole thing working. The extras for the fire scene were predominantly members of The Beltane Fire Society. What more can I say. I was very fortunate they agreed to do it.

Were you inspired by any particular folk horror films or stories?

The two films that were the biggest sources of inspiration for me in the run up to the shoot were The Wailing and Borgman. I’m not sure I would necessarily call them folk horror, but they both have an incredible way of using folk elements to transform a familiar world into something very original. 

The shamanic ritual scene in The Wailing is one of my all-time favourite pieces of filmmaking. Movies can often make the occult seem hokey, meaningless and cliched but that scene gave me the confidence to really attack the fire scene in The Motorist. It inspired me to try and achieve some level of authenticity by making the real event as intense and specific as possible, something that would really make an impression on those who were there. Similarly, the opening scene of Borgman, when he wakes up in a hole and sends the text from his mobile. I tried to get everyone involved in The Motorist to watch that, because I felt that it perfectly encapsulated the line I wanted to walk between folktale and reality.

Was it challenging to pull off the shots requiring the car?

Yes, it was very challenging, to the extent that it almost derailed the whole shoot. It still turns my stomach thinking about it.

How was the shoot as a whole? The location looks really barren and remote.

It was the most intense weekend of my life. We shot over two days, so there was a lot to get through in that time. For a variety of reasons, we pretty much had to shoot it all in sequence. So on Saturday, we started with the opening scenes in which the motorist refuses to get out of the car. Then as the sun went down, we had about an hour to weld and rivet the metal sheets to the car so it would be ready for the night scene, while filming John’s performance of being shut inside. At this point, the night extras arrived, and we had to start prepping the bonfire for the ritual scene, and haul our stupidly massive generator up the hill to the location. That makes it sound easy but it wasn’t. We all got wind-burn on the first day, which I didn’t even know existed until the shoot.

The second day was plagued by car trouble. Apparently putting a welding current through the car body had fried the battery. So, we couldn’t start the car without four people behind it pushing, while the 3rd AD sat inside in pitch darkness with a walkie talkie with someone shouting: “Now Kenny! Start the ignition!” or “Slow down!” or “Turn left!” at him. It was a health and safety nightmare. If there hadn’t been such a great, resilient team, it would have all fallen apart.

What can we expect next from you?

I’m just coming to the end of post-production on my next short The Mad Shagger. It’s another horror, but this time set in a much more industrial, electric world. It’s about a woman searching for a missing loved one, who, unknown to her, has been afflicted with a terrible curse that turns him into the titular monster. It’s a bigger, more ambitious film than The Motorist. What I’m working towards after that is another smaller, more domestic, very performance focused supernatural horror film. After that, who knows, scrambling around for cash to make a feature?

The Motorist is part of our spotlight on the 2020 edition of FrightFest. You can find the rest of our festival coverage here.

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