In “Nocebo,” a great tete-a-tete occurs during the making of a bed as Christine (Eva Green) and Diana (Chai Fonacier), her new housekeeper, are tucking in the sheets together, but it’s clear who has all the pull in the situation. Christine needs the help after being bit by a tic, a particularly frustrating occurrence for the self-made woman who built a children’s clothing line and manages to oversee every detail while tending to a kid (Billie Gadsdon) of her own. Her husband Felix has his own work to deal with if they’re to afford their pricey mansion outside of London, so she thinks nothing of it when Diana arrives at her door with about as much notice as Mary Poppins, relatively unconcerned that she can’t remember actually putting up notice of a job opportunity, but relieved to have her around, as much as she’d still like to do things for herself.
The idea that Christine could be her own worst enemy adds a new wrinkle to the psychological thriller as Lorcan Finnegan and his longtime collaborator, screenwriter Garret Shanley, have been apt to do as they’ve become some of the most exciting filmmakers working in the horror genre. When nefarious nannies have been lurking around that space as long as zombies and axe murderers, there is certainly reason to be suspicious of Diana, who tries her best to win over the family with home cooking and holistic therapy from her home country of the Philippines but instead elicits their distrust of the foreign, and it is Christine who should start looking at herself in the mirror as her health continues to decline after an initial bounce upon Diana’s arrival, having to wonder if she’s being tortured for sins of the past that no one else should know about but her.
As Christine descends into madness, “Nocebo,” which takes its title from a belief so strong it becomes reality, considers the harm in small cultural appropriations that come to threaten to swallow entire communities over time when Christine and her family have buffered themselves from the rest of the world while drawing on its most neglected parts to build her empire, her treatment of Diana becoming a microcosm of how she’s conducted herself over the years and a bug bite appearing as a cruelly ironic twist of fate, given how she got her own toehold in the industry. In Finnegan and Shanley’s previous collaborations “Without Name” and “Vivarium,” people are often consumed by the places they seek to conquer, whether it was a contractor (Alan McKenna) for a land developer looking to break ground in an ancient forest in the former or the latter where a couple (Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots) can’t escape the suburbia they settle into when any attempts at forging their own lives can’t help but resemble all their neighbors. Even with its harrowing opening, Christine would seem to have left such troubles behind her in “Nocebo,” but karma has a way of playing the long game.
After playing Sitges and Beyond Fest, “Nocebo” is scaring up audiences in theaters and on VOD this week and Finnegan spoke about getting inside his main character’s head so evocatively with shrewd choices of musical accompaniment and lenses beyond Green’s go-for-broke performance, as well as mounting a co-production across England and the Philippines and making the most of a tight schedule.
From “Without Name” on, it seems like there’s this ongoing fascination with a person’s connection to their environment and what ownership they have over it. I wonder if that’s generally a starting place or it just crept its way into this one.
I suppose it is. In this film, it’s probably connected to colonialism in terms of land grabbing. Ireland was colonized by the British, and with that comes the idea of property and owning stuff, so that probably has become a theme that’s running through our films. It was a strange process on this film. It really started with an interest in placebos and nocebos and how they’re connected to shamanism and paganism, which was prevalent in Ireland pre-Christianity and in the Philippines. But in our research, we started discovering more and more about faith healing and contemporary shamanism that exists in the Philippines, so we started doing research into that. Because the Philippines was colonized by the Spanish and still had all those quite corrupt governments and was allowing western countries exploit its natural resources, which includes manufacturing and exploitation of people, but also the exploitation of minerals and oil and all that, Garret and I got a little bit of a research grant and decided to go over to the island of Cebu, an area where there’s still quite a lot of faith healing. Beside that, there’s a little island called Siquijor that’s famous in the Philippines as the “island of the witches,” so we met faith healers and shamans and witch doctors as well as visited garment factories and the industrial areas around Cebu City. We could see that there was this interesting connection between Irish and Filipino folklore and how they are interconnected with colonialism.
What was it like to figure out a production across two continents?
[Once] we had a kind of framework for the story, I pitched it in China at a co-production market in Macau and we found Filipino co-producers because we knew if we were going to continue to develop the story, we wanted to do it as a proper co-production and Epic Media came onboard and they helped cast it with finding Chai, who Cebuano as well and I also brought on Antonio Buencamino, a composer from Manila who was able to bring in a lot of the indigenous instrumentation from the Visayan region and incorporate it into the film as well. Then when we knew we were going to progress with the film as an Irish-Filipino co-production, authenticity was obviously going to be really important, so we wanted to make sure the scenes that were set there were coming from a place of authenticity, so we wanted to bring on a writer from Cebu and we met Ara [Chawdhary], who’s brilliant. She and Garret wrote some scenes and sent it back and forth between them and then she also worked on the spells – she’s kind of into witchcraft and all that kind of stuff, so she was able to write dialogue as well because a lot of it’s not Tagalog, it’s in Cebuono.
I’ve always wondered about your collaboration with Garret, is there a point where he goes off and does his own thing or are you working on the script together throughout?
No, it’s a back and forth. A lot of our projects take years to get made. We probably started this before “Vivarium” was even finished, so we share images a lot of the time and watch a lot of documentaries that are related to things, but we really start with a theme and from there, the visuals happen in an organic way. Then also working with my [cinematographer], we start it into another avenue of visual research to come up with the look for the film.
The use of color in this is particularly striking when the bold colors seem inherent to the Philippines, but more artificial in Christine’s world. Was that a foundational idea?
I’ve spent a lot of time in East Asia over the years in general and the use of color in those countries always tends to be a bit more bold, especially the really bright greens and pinks. You see them everywhere in curtains and fabrics as well as paint. Then I wanted the British part to feel colder as well, not just physically, butter the temperature to be cooler and for there to be a harsh contrast between the two worlds because I didn’t want that cliched thing where people cut to Mexico and there’s a yellow grade on everything. I wanted to grade to cross the two locations to be the same, but to have the color palette that’s within the actual design work to help the separation. A lot of the color palette for the interior of the house where Mark and Ava’s characters live is all actually based on colonial colors from the British empire that they used in their grand houses.
That entire world of children’s clothing and the brand around it seems surreal – was it interesting to research?
Yeah, one of the kind of provocations for making the film was while we were researching — I had read about it at the time, but I did more research into it — the Kent X Factory Fire in Manila in 2015 where 72 people were trapped in a building that ended up on fire, and all those documentaries were coming out around fast fashion at that same period were really eye-opening. I’ve worked in TV commercials as well and I know how the whole marketing thing goes and how people can just borrow from different cultures to promote their brands. It’s quite insidious to the reality of the actual workers’ conditions when they have their main headquarters in London or something and it’s all nice and slick.
There’s an intensity to the closeups that was really effective as well. How did that make it into the visual language?
Yeah, we did go in for a lot of closeups on this film to bring the two female characters closer and closer together and to give people that feeling, but also there was a supernatural control going on within the environment, so the cinematography leaned into that. We did quite a few split-diopter shots to keep the two characters [unnaturally connected] like there’s a scene where Diana and then Christine are sitting on the bed together, but then Christine’s profile is a closeup and Diana’s closeup’s in focus too, giving the feeling that she’s somehow on the same plane or entering into her subconscious.
It would seem difficult to find an actress of a certain stature who could be so committed to this kind of role. Was it hard getting Eva onboard to go all in?
She read the script and really liked it, and we had a good chat. She really liked the themes that we were exploring and she’s quite political herself, particularly around human rights, so as soon as she said yes, she was committed 100 percent. I remember shooting, [thinking] “yeah, she just goes for it.”
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on this one?
Pretty much every day. We had a pretty crazy schedule, and for about a week, we were shooting like 12 scenes a day. All of that part, which was intense, sometimes we wouldn’t have time to do even one or two takes, which the sound guy didn’t really like. [laughs] But one of the days that was unexpectedly interesting was we had a totally different plan for the TV commercial for Christine’s brand with the kids dancing. It was a much more complex scene we worked out and it was going to take two days to shoot, but as the schedule compressed and days got taken out for budgetary reasons, we only really had an afternoon to do the same scene. We booked this spotlight for the other plan, so all we had was a spotlight and a couple of hours and we figured out the scene that we shot, which was to go quite abstract with the lighting and knock everything off and have that spotlight on Eva, pulling everything back and forth between her hallucination and the reality.
That uncanny feeling also comes through in the score which is rhythmic but not in any way a traditionally symphonic score. What was it like to work on?
Yeah, the music in this film was always a tricky one. I was listening to a lot of Filipino music, particularly Visayan music and music from Mindanao and it could be quite abstract to me. I did have some conversations with older composers who didn’t really do film or genre – they just compose for an orchestra and tour, but I was talking to a professor at the University of Music in Manila, who had this new student who she thought was amazing, Antonio Buencamino, and he did a few sketches based on the script and he just totally nailed it. We both had the same taste in instrumentation, and he actually spent a year doing the music for the film, writing music just based on the script before we shot anything. I sent him images, a book of different moods for the characters and different scenes and then he’d do sketches, so it was a great collaboration. It’s his first film and I think he did a brilliant job. It’s an unusual mix of instrumentation.
“Nocebo” opens on November 4th in New York at the Village East and in Los Angeles at the Harkins Cerritos 16 and the Harkins Chino Hills 18 and will be available on demand and on digital on November 22nd.