Psychological thriller Cellar Door partly inspired by story of Tuam babies

JUST as last year’s Black 47 took a dark period in our history — the Famine — and based a revenge thriller around it, Cellar Door turns to Ireland’s troubled past to form its story, writes Esther McCarthy.

The provocative psychological thriller is partly inspired by the story of the Tuam babies, and revolves around a young woman struggling for control of her motherhood while being held at a Magdalene Laundry.

Starring Karen Hassan and Catherine Walker, Cellar Door follows the story of Aidie, a young woman who embarks on a search for her son while in the grip of the Catholic Church.

Writer/director Viko Nicki, who previously brought us the documentary Coming Home, had been interested in doing a mystery thriller based around the concept of imprisonment.

“When I made Coming Home, it was a documentary about a guy called Angel, who suffered a huge miscarriage of justice. He did a lot of time in prison for something he didn’t do,” Nicki says.

“I was very involved in that culture of prisoners and what that must feel like. I took a lot of that into the idea of imagining these women who were taken in. It was very much like a prison, and their life was like a prison. They were trapped.

“Even broader and more abstractly speaking, the film is about the trapping of culture, the trapping into this religious regime. I wanted to represent that in a way that was cinematic, that wasn’t even shown but was felt.”

As the horror of events in Tuam unfolded, he put pen to paper.

“When that came out, that was when I wrote the script. I have three kids, and just the idea… there’s a lot of horrible parts to every country’s history. But just that in particular, it was such a small ground.

“Words like ‘septic tank’ and the amounts of bodies and all that was just quite horrific. I wanted to approach that in the film, but I didn’t want to tackle it straight on.”

Instead, he placed them as themes within Cellar Door’s psychological thriller narrative, centred around a women struggling to relive her past and find her son — a son Church authorities tell her doesn’t exist.

There is a present story but she is reliving her past. If you have a character that had love and lost love, that had a kid and lost a kid, to have a character with emotional, impactful, tragic parts of her life, how is that recounted from the past?

Belfast actress Karen Hassan excels as the lead character, and Nicki cast the star of The Fall TV series for her blend of confidence and vulnerability.

“There is a lot of talent out there. But Karen had this kind of fragility mixed with this kind of confidence. It’s a very interesting mixture, and she was also one of these people who’s different under the surface than on the surface. She’s extraordinarily beautiful, she’s got this really cinematic look.

“Then right away, there’s this depth of intelligence that was really interesting to put to a character that needs to use her intelligence to get out of situations.”

Nicki, who has lived in his adopted homeland of Ireland for more than twenty years, was born in Kosovo and then lived for many years in New York.

Ireland became home when he fell in love with a fellow theatre worker, Doireann Sheridan, who worked in the same theatre group as he did one summer.

“I’m originally from Kosovo. We moved to New York when the troubles started in the early ‘80s. I grew up in New York city, and I met a lovely Irish lady working in theatre in New York. I first got to Dublin in 1998 — we’re still here three kids and twenty years later.

“I was working with the Irish rep theatre in New York in my late teens. I’ve actually come full circle because I’ve started producing a few theatre shows last year and this year.”

Cellar Door can be seen in some cinemas from tomorrow

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