Descending Into THE CELLAR With Director Brendan Muldowney And Stars Elisha Cuthbert And Eoin Macken

Practical FX and the horrors of math.

By Jason Kauzlarich · @jasonkauz · April 14, 2022, 1:00 PM PDT
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The Cellar directed by Brendan Muldowney and starring Elisha Cuthbert (The Girl Next Door, House of Wax) and Eoin Macken (Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, The Tudors), premiered at SXSW this year. Shot on location in Ireland, a family moves to a new house, and their daughter mysteriously vanishes. There's evil in the house and scares in the movie that had me jumping out of my seat. Before the premiere, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Muldowney, Cuthbert, and Macken to discuss their new movie.

I watched The Cellar, and it was not what I was expecting. I hadn't seen the poster before watching it, and I was expecting your standard haunted house movie. But then it went in a much different direction.

Elisha:
Oh, good. Veers in a different way, for sure.

After I watched it, I watched Brendan's short film, which this was based on, "The Ten Steps." There are obviously some of the same beats from the disappearance, but then you added a lot more to it. I'm just curious how that evolved into a full feature.

Brendan:
You've seen the short. There's just not enough in there. I tried to extend that years ago, and I wrote a version, which is a long version of that. I don't know if you know the journalist Kim Newman? He writes horror novels and stuff. But I remember at the time he liked the film, and I said, "What do you think of maybe extending?" He said, "There's not enough in it."

So over the years, I used maybe the short as a prologue and tried to continue it from there with a different family. And, I came around to the place where the most obvious thing was — a daughter goes missing, and her mother has to go looking for her. That was where I got with the character. The mythology then went through a lot of different changes as well. I had the Irish mythology in there at one stage. And finally, I went, 'oh, it has to be related to maths.' That's where the quantum physics and the idea of string theory and different dimensions came in.

Where did the whole mathematics angle come from? Did you base it on anything?

Brendan:
In the feature, I just one day went, 'this has to be related to math.' So, I Googled mathematics, the devil, or mathematics, something like this, and up popped evil numbers, and already I started getting excited. That was a dead-end, and that's where the dimensions came into it. Because, in a way, mathematics is literally a blueprint for... mathematics isn't just numbers. A lot of the time they are literally representations of our world, our things. So, that's probably where it came from.

Elisha:
The big bang theory, and all of those black holes.

Brendan:
Exactly, yeah.

Elisha:
Fascinating.

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So, in the movie, the daughter goes missing. And the mom and dad have varying degrees of how they handle it. I will say, the mom took it much more seriously.

Elisha:
I was really aggressive.

And the dad was like, "Eh, she'll come back." And, he eventually comes around, at one point.

Elisha:
Does he?

Eoin:
He doesn't have a choice in the end.

Elisha:
He does.

Eoin:
But when he comes around, it's too late.

When shit goes down, though, I think the dad is like, "Oh, okay. This is happening."

Elisha:
Yes.

Eoin:
Crazy? Alright.

Elisha:
Yeah, this is funny.

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Elisha, you are a Mom, how did that influence your approach to the role?

Elisha:
Well, I think you realize once you're a parent, the reality of how scary it is to be a parent. So, there was a lot to draw on there. I think just imagining her in that position is just terrifying. But it also, even when you watch the film, anytime you think, 'why would she go back down the stairs?' But, as a parent, you realize you'd try to lift a car for your kid if you had to, you know what I mean? So, I think it drives it in such an organic way that makes it so real, and so believable, and so scary. So, I did feel connected to the character because of that. I just felt like, yeah, she would go to the ends of the earth to find this child.

Brendan:
To hell and back.

Eoin:
To hell and back.

Elisha:
To hell and back, yeah.

Eoin:
And it's interesting you said that, because I don't have kids. That's probably why I was like, 'She'll come back.'

Elisha:
Yes. Oh my gosh, that's great.

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Eoin, you were also in one of Brendan's other movies, Savage. As "Gym-Changing Room Guy Two."

Brendan:
That's true.

Eoin:
That was a big role for me at the time. And also, I got paid quite well for that.

Elisha:
No one's brought that up.

Eoin:
The day rate on that was great when I was just starting out as an actor. I was like, 'this is fantastic.' I think I got two days out of it. I was like, this is great.

Elisha:
You got into the union.

Eoin:
Yeah, I think I might have, actually.

Did you two have a lot of interaction for that movie? And how is it now that you're in a much bigger role in this one?

Eoin:
No, he didn't even know I was in it. He didn't talk to me. He's actually forgotten that I was in that movie as well.

Brendan:
I haven't forgotten. But I used to just say me and Eoin have known each other for a long time. But what I meant was, I presume people know what I mean, but you're dead right. I should have said to other people going, 'Well, Eoin was in my first feature.'

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You've both been in horror movies. Elisha, you were in Captivity, and then the House of Wax remake, which is having a pretty big resurgence in the horror community; now it's this cult favorite. Now you're back in a horror movie, do you enjoy the genre?

Elisha:
I do. It's funny because watching them, it's a different story. I'm such a wimp, I'm so scared. But, filming them is just so much fun. And you really have to let all inhibitions go because to get to a place where, in front of 45, 50 crew members, you're screaming for no reason. You really have to immerse yourself and just go, 'screw it, I'm doing it.' You've just got to go all out, and that's so much fun and so liberating. You can't hold back when you're doing a film like this, or the genre in particular. It's a wild ride, and they're a lot of fun.

And you find the levels, too. Brendan was really great about it. I think I came in so hot after two weeks of quarantine, and we had our first scene in the detective's office, and he's like, "Okay, let's tone it down a little bit." And I'm like, "Oh, right. We're in the genre. We're doing a horror film, we've got to make it a little more moody." But once you got on that ride, the subtlety of it, and just finding where to hit it, and where to make an action where... it's fun. You get to do so many different things in one film. I do really enjoy doing them.

And, Eoin, you were in Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, the recent Till Death, and The Forest. Do you enjoy working in the genre?

Eoin:
Yeah, I think the genre space is really interesting, aside from just what you can do from a visual point of view and an atmosphere and a music point of view. I think, from a character point of view, there's stuff that you get to do in a genre movie that you can't do in other stuff. And I think, for the relationship with Brian and Keira, Elisha and I had some time, we got to work with Brendan, and just finding that dynamic where it felt very natural. And that's a really interesting thing you get to play with from a character's point of view. And then you're still in this world tapestry that sucks you in. So, it's incredibly fun.

I'm going to try not to give away any spoilers, but pretty early in the film, one of the kids mentions that the previous owner was a witch. So with all the mythology, did you base that on anything? Or is it just all stuff you researched and put together for the movie?

Brendan:
Yeah. The mythology went through so many different ways. I had Irish mythology at one stage, but once I figured out...I'm stuttering because I'm trying not to spoil it myself. But It's not a lot of stuff. If you actually think about it, it is one puzzle that really comes together. Everything is all based around one puzzle.

Yeah. I think at one point, Eoin figures it out.

Eoin:
Figures it out, yeah.

Brendan:
Yeah.

Elisha:
He finally figures it out. [laughs]

Eoin:
Finally, I didn't literally for ages. Oh, all right. But I only figured it out when I actually saw the internet. I wouldn't believe you in person.

Elisha:
No.

Eoin:
Whereas, on the internet, it was like…

Elisha:
It must be real. [laughs]

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When [redacted to avoid spoilers] shows up, there's a scene where you're hiding, and you're like, "Oh, it's okay. I'll come out." And, [redacted] pops up. I yelped, and then my girlfriend comes in from the other room like, "What happened?"

Elisha:
Oh my God, that's great.

What was it was like filming all of those scenes?

Elisha:
Yeah, it's tricky, you know? Like I said, you really got to just go for it. It was actually pretty impressive to... without giving it away, the structure of it was crazy. The guy that was [redacted]], he was in an actual suit, there's no CGI. That's the thing. We weren't really messing with a whole lot of CGI. Other than my eye through the keyhole and things of that nature. But here, this guy was in the suit. He was a great guy too.

But yeah, you got to just really get into it, and just go all out for it. We did that scene a couple of times to get the timing right. That was a fun scene. I was glad it was over, though. Scary stuff.

That's cool. Yeah, because that was my next question, if he was all practical, and not CGI.

Elisha:
Yeah, practical. And on stilts, so he was super tall. It was crazy, it was really cool. I wasn't sure how Brendan was going to attack that, if it was going to be CGI, or what. But, for it to be practical was cool.

Brendan:
There's a tiny bit of CGI in a closeup. We give it some facial expressions.

Elisha:
And then playing with the light too, how Brendan plays with the figure appearing behind Dylan in the film. And you don't see it at first, but then you start to see it. That's so cool, I'd never seen anything like that in a film.

It's creepy stuff.

Elisha:
It's good.

Did you shoot on location in Ireland?

Elisha:
Lived on location. Yeah.

And that very creepy house, how long did it take you to find that location?

Brendan:
I keep saying to people that there's not a romantic story around it. It's, the financing of the film was-

Elisha:
Dictated.

Brendan:
Yeah, dictated. It had to be in the West. And then it went from not just in the West, it has to be in Roscommon, which is a small enough County. And I was worried about finding, not just the house, but also the advertising of it. Somewhere that looked like the big city. And, we were lucky. We had a very good location scout, Gordon Wycherley, who worked with me on Pilgrimage, and he found the house. And I do remember the first day walking into it, and normally, his style was to bring me to the best location last in the day, so that I had been disappointed, disappointed, and then he'd hit me with the good one. But, this time, he brought me to this one first. And I said, "What's going on? Have we got better ones to see? And he said, "No, this is the good one." But, it was brilliant. You just know it when you walk into a really good location.

Was the cellar a part of the house? Or was that a different location?

Brendan:
That's a set.

And, my last question, the whole end scene, and again, I don't want to spoil it, but when I saw it, I was like, this is very The Beyond.

Brendan:
The Beyond. Well, I suppose there are elements nearly story-wise, in the end of The Beyond, it's very interesting the way they go down the stairs in the hospital and end up back in the basement. But you're dead right, with the visual look, that's exactly what it was modeled on, the last shot of The Beyond, yeah.

The Cellar is in select theaters and on Shudder April 15th.