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Q&A: Director David Keating on the Centipedes and Other Horrors of “CHERRY TREE” (with new art)

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Irish-born director David Keating helped spearhead the Hammer Films revival with WAKE WOOD, and he’s back with a new occult opus, CHERRY TREE. FANGORIA sat down with the filmmaker to get his take on conjuring up dark rituals.

CHERRY TREE, which Dark Sky Films releases tomorrow in select theaters and on VOD, gives its young heroine Faith (Naomi Battrick) a particularly strong motivation to succumb to the dark arts: Her father is terminally ill, and she’d do anything to save him. She’ll even make a deal with Sissy Young (Anna Walton from HELLBOY II and SOULMATE), her school’s new field hockey coach and a practicing witch, to become pregnant in exchange for her father’s cure. As her child grows at an unnatural rate, Faith comes to realize Sissy’s more insidious side—which involves lots of creepy, crawly centipedes. Fango spoke with Keating following the world premiere of CHERRY TREE (which was scripted by Brendan McCarthy, who also produced with his LET US PREY and THE HALLOW collaborator John McDonnell) at last summer’s Fantasia festival in Montreal.

FANGORIA: CHERRY TREE has been in the works for a little while now; when you came aboard, what was your vision of the film?

CHERRYTREEKEATING1DAVID KEATING: Well, to me, it’s really a very sweet story about how much a teenage girl loves her dad, and what she’ll do to save his life—except that it’s got killer witches and poisonous centipedes and blood rituals. As the director, I had quite a lot of influence on to what degree the film explores that theme; somebody else might approach it differently.

FANG: Did you do any research into actual witchcraft or Wiccan practices?

KEATING: I did a lot of research into centipedes. You know, what you try to do with things like rituals is help tell the story, so that’s why you invent stuff, really; you’re asking, “What is going to serve us to advance the plot and reveal character?” By and large, you do that by exploring their motivations. It’s the same whether it’s a horror film or a drama. You’re thinking, “What does the character want, what does the character need and what’s stopping her from getting it?” They reveal themselves via the choices they make to overcome the obstacle to what they want.

FANG: The film deals with the touchy subject of a high-school girl intentionally getting pregnant; was there any concern about that side of the story?

KEATING: Honestly, we just went for it; we weren’t careful. You let your own sensibilities guide you as you’re working. I never asked anybody about it; I just involved the actress [Battrick] very much in the storytelling, encouraging her to think about what she was like at 15 or 16. She was in her early 20s at the time.

FANG: How did you settle on Battrick and Anna Walton as your two leads?

KEATING: You know, I don’t know to what degree this is unconventional, but I don’t really do typical auditions, or certainly the auditions that were set up for me by casting directors when I was starting out, where you see somebody every five minutes in a weird room, sitting behind a desk. I don’t find those experiences very informative or good for the actors, so I like to workshop and get them in the room and get them relaxed, and they usually have a good time. If an actor is prepared to come along to meet you, they should at least come away having had some fun. That’s kind of a rambling way of saying that Anna and Naomi had a lot of chemistry in the room together. That was how it became clear that we would cast them, and invite them into the madness, and they agreed to come and play. It becomes a sort of team who hold hands and jump off a cliff together, and it’s important to get to know what they’re like, and for them to get to know what I’m like.

FANG: The film has a very effective visual scheme, taking us from workaday locations to very scary, dark places. Can you talk about how you developed that?

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KEATING: Yeah—I start with story and character, and then I think about color and texture. WAKE WOOD was a very green film, and with CHERRY TREE I really wanted to make a red one [laughs], which drove our art department and costume designers crazy. I’m slightly exaggerating, of course, but I really encourage people to work within a limited palette. This was to be a story about witches and centipedes, so I was thinking in terms of red and things that crawl and creep, and pretty soon every bridge I looked at started to resemble an insect. From that, for example, I started to think about shape and outline.

I really felt at one point that maybe a little too much of the story was being moved forward through dialogue and not action, so I wanted to evolve a different way of shooting it. A lot of that was about how we could take more risks, and instead of treating this like a low-budget horror film, approaching it like a big-budget experimental film—which was exactly the same resources, just a different mindset. At one point—because it is, after all, called CHERRY TREE—there was a tree that they all sort of danced around. But then we found these tunnels in a place called Camden Fort in County Cork, Ireland, and it seemed a really interesting idea that these caverns might be under the main house. But then, how does a tree grow underground? And at one point in the script, it actually did, but we decided we were not going to be able to pull that off. So we came up with the thought of the cavern being formed from the roots of the tree growing above it.

Then we had to find a cherry tree, and fortunately, we managed to time our shooting for when it blossomed. That was a short window, and there were some quite windy nights when I was thinking, “Is it going to be bare by the time [we shoot]?”

FANG: How was it wrangling all the centipedes?

KEATING: They were probably the most difficult element of the film; they do not take direction at all. You can warm them up to get them active or cool them down to make them slow, and that’s pretty much all you can do. We needed them to do particular things in the story, and we were well into shooting and still experimenting, trying to find ways of getting the centipedes to do what we wanted. We had an absolutely fantastic wrangler, a Frenchman called Michel Dugon, who is one of the world’s experts on poisonous centipedes. And they are poisonous; you don’t want to get bitten, because their venom is worse than a scorpion sting—it’s very, very unpleasant.

So I initially told the actors that they could never touch the centipedes, but we reached a point where we were not going to be able to tell the story without the cast actually coming in contact with them. And by that point, Michel had built up so much trust between us and him that when he said, “We can do this and it’s safe,” the cast all just said, “OK, I’ll do that,” and it was fine.

FANG: In terms of the other occult elements, how much of them did you want to convey naturalistically and how much did you want to create through special FX?

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KEATING: That just evolved naturally. I really like ’70s films, and effects that are done in front of the camera. There are very, very few computer-generated effects in CHERRY TREE, so if you approach it like that, there’s a certain way you’ll start to look at things. The various departments were quite empowered, so Anna’s look, for example, really evolved out of drawings done by Ben O’Connor, the special effects guy.

FANG: You’ve kind of done two films in a row about different kinds of occult practices. Is that a subject you want to continue to explore?

KEATING: I’m really interested in stories that deal with the idea that the world is more than what it appears to be on the surface. I will probably continue to do that, both in the horror genre and outside it. The next film I’m making, which I can’t really talk about at the moment, is a horror film, but it doesn’t have any occult in it, and I’m very excited about it.

FANG: The UK has a great tradition of occult films, from Hammer to THE WICKER MAN and beyond; was that an inspiration on WAKE WOOD and CHERRY TREE?

KEATING: Yeah, and I think WAKE WOOD was seen by UK audiences as being in that tradition, which I was very happy about. I was very proud of the way the ritual in WAKE WOOD worked; we called it “farmyard magic.” In the script, it was originally conceived as a kind of CGI thing with magic happening before your eyes, and the more I thought about it, the more I felt it would be fun to do it just using all the equipment you might find in the average farmyard.

CHERRY TREE is also about powerful women—it’s really a story of women taking power and applying power, and the actors really liked that. I encouraged them to run with that and enjoy it, and that really informed the way we presented the magic. The ritual is chanting and blood and sharp knives and centipedes and cherries—that’s about it!

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About the author
Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold has been a member of the FANGORIA team for the past three decades. After starting as a writer for the magazine in 1988, he came aboard as associate editor in 1990 and two years later moved up to managing editor. He now serves as editor-in-chief of the magazine while continuing to contribute numerous articles and reviews, as well as a contributing editor/writer for this website.
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