Siobhán Costigan, Director of Freak: 2014 Heartland Film Festival Interview

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Siobhán Costigan is an emerging documentary filmmaker and graduate of the prestigious Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS) in Sydney. Siobhán’s first documentary, How the Light Gets In had its world premiere at the St Kilda Film Festival in 2013 and has since screened at several international film festivals including the 2013 Heartland Film Festival, where it was a Festival Award winner. Siobhán has since made three other documentary shorts, including Freak, and is currently working on a number of short and long-form projects, including her first documentary feature.

HFF: What is your film about, and how did the project come to be?

SC: My film Freak is a short documentary about a very interesting man by the name of Erik Sprague, also known as The Lizardman. Erik is a sideshow performer famous for his extensive body modification, including full-body tattoos of green scales, sharpened teeth, bifurcated tongue and subdermal implants. But there’s much more to him than meets the eye.

The film actually started out as a brief exercise that I was given when I was studying post-grad Documentary at the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) in Sydney last year. Each of the documentary students was sent to the Royal Easter Show and given a couple of hours to wander around and find a story, which we came back to film the following day. As a child, my parents never allowed me to go into the freak show tent at the Easter Show, but I was always intrigued as to whether there really was a bearded lady and a man with the body of a unicorn (!), so I decided immediately that I wanted to make a film about the freak show performers. And as soon as I met Erik, I knew that I wanted to focus my story on him.

The film was very low budget and shot with only two crew – my DOP, Lucas Tomoana and sound recordist, Gareth Evans. We filmed the interview and overlay footage against a black felt board in the fluorescent-lit green room behind the Freak Show tent, and my editor Stew Arnott and colorist Dave Bardwell did a lot of work in post production to level out the colors so that it now looks as though it was shot in a studio. After the edit was complete, we worked with two very talented composers, Freya Berkhout and Danny Keig to develop the score. They used the sounds from various found objects to create a piece that I think fits perfectly with the mood of the film.

HFF: What was your role in the production?

SC: I directed and produced the film.

HFF: Why did you submit to the Heartland Film Festival? Have you been to the Festival before?

SC: I was very fortunate to have my first documentary film How the Light Gets In selected as an Award Winner in the Documentary Shorts category at last year’s Festival. As part of my prize, I was flown to Indianapolis for the Festival, and had one of the most wonderful weeks of my life there. It was great to see my film screen so many times during the Festival and lovely to have the chance to meet audience members and participate in Q&A sessions and the Filmmakers’ Brunch.

How the Light Gets In is quite an emotional film, and I was very moved by the number of people who came up to me after the screenings and told me how affected they’d been by the film, many of them sharing their own personal stories of loss with me. There were filmmakers who had flown to Heartland from all over the world, and it was fantastic to connect with so many other international filmmakers and watch their films. We were all treated so well by the Heartland team and by the people of Indianapolis, who are some of the friendliest and most welcoming people I’ve ever met. I was hoping to have another film to enter into Heartland this year, so I’m thrilled that Freak has been selected to screen at this year’s festival.

HFF: This year’s tagline is “Shift Your Perspective” – what lasting effect will your film have on moviegoers?

SC: I think my film Freak could not fit more perfectly with this year’s theme! The film is really about the assumptions we make about people when we first see or meet them, and how those assumptions are often false. It’s about the importance of remaining open-minded and willing to have your views challenged and changed.

Freak

HFF: What has inspired you to become a filmmaker?

SC: My background is in graphic design, but I have always had a great love of film and a strong interest in the filmmaking process. A few years ago, I started to feel a bit disenchanted with design and began considering a career change. Essentially, I wanted to remain working in a creative field but doing something that felt more meaningful. Around this time, my youngest sister died in a tragic accident, and her death and the circumstance surrounding it were the catalyst for finally making the decision to move into documentary filmmaking. So far it’s proving to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

HFF: What is something that you know about filmmaking now but you weren’t told when you started your career?

SC: Filmmaking, like design, is a very male-dominated field, something I never really considered before entering either industry. However, while there are definitely additional challenges for women working in the film industry, I think these challenges only serve to make you work harder.

HFF: What are some of your favorite movies? What’s your favorite worst movie (you know it’s bad, but still love it)?

SC: My favorite films of all time are A Bout de Souffle by Jean-Luc Godard and The Red Shoes by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. I’m also a huge fan of Federico Fellini and have seen all of his films multiple times. My favorite contemporary director is probably the Swedish director Lukas Moodysson. He’s a master storyteller with great empathy and incredible humanism, and he handles drama and humor equally well. Two of his films Lilya 4-Ever and Together are among my favorite films of all time. Other contemporary directors I love include Spike Jonze, Darren Aronofsky, Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Lars von Trier, Sofia Coppola, Todd Solondz, Hal Hartley, Mike Leigh, Woody Allen, David Lynch, Martin Scorcese, Andrey Zvyagintsev, Pedro Almodóvar, Alexander Payne, Steven Soderbergh, Abbas Kiarostami, Wim Wenders, Gaspar Noé, Alfonso Cuarón, Michel Gondry, Clint Eastwood, Jane Campion, Jacques Audiard, Spike Lee, Roman Polanski, Jim Jarmusch, Peter Greenaway, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, David Cronenberg, Todd Haynes and animator Jan Svankmajer. I could go on and on!

In terms of documentary, I love everything that Simon Chinn has produced, in particular The Imposter and Man On Wire. I also love the work of Errol Morris, Frederick Wiseman, Werner Herzog, Alex Gibney, Lee Hirsch, Andrew Jarecki, Kevin Macdonald and Mark Achbar. Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell is also one of my favourite documentaries of the past couple of years, and I hope she goes on to make more documentaries. She’s an amazing talent. I also like Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s films, some of which fall halfway between documentary and drama. I was very lucky to have Amiel as a lecturer at AFTRS last year.  He’s incredibly inspiring.

My favorite “bad” film? When I was growing up, I was obsessed with Mickey Rourke and I remember watching 9 1/2 Weeks  approximately nine and a half thousand times!! I know it’s not regarded as a masterpiece by any stretch, but I still have a soft spot for that film. I’ve always felt that Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke were both really underrated as actors (and in some of their more recent roles, they proved me right) and that Adrian Lyne was also an underrated director. All of his films have incredible style and atmosphere, and I think he’s a really great storyteller. Jacob’s Ladder is a brilliant film, and who could fault Flashdance?!

HFF: How many film festivals has your film been a part of? What do you like the most about the festival experience?

SC: Freak had its world premiere at the Academy Award®-qualifying St Kilda Film Festival in May and will have its European premiere at the Down Under Berlin Film Festival in September before having its US premiere at Heartland! There is so much that I love about attending film festivals, especially when I have a film in the program. There’s something magical about seeing your film on the big screen for the first time, especially when you’re seeing it with an audience. When you’re making a film, you pore over every minor detail, so it’s great to have the opportunity to see your film through the fresh eyes of someone who’s viewing it for the first time. Seeing Freak at St Kilda was a great experience because the audience was very vocal in their reactions to The Lizardman, and the film got quite a few laughs.

HFF: Heartland Film Festival moviegoers love filmmaker Q&As. Let’s say a Festival attendee wants to earn some brownie points—what is a question that you’d love to answer, but haven’t yet been asked?

SC: Why have you chosen to work in documentary rather than drama?


See Freak in Shorts Program 8: A Touch of Reality at the 2014 Heartland Film Festival:

  • Saturday, Oct. 18 – 6:00 pm at AMC Traders Point Showplace 12
  • Sunday, Oct. 19 – 2:45 pm at AMC Traders Point Showplace 12
  • Monday, Oct. 20 – 2:00 pm at AMC Traders Point Showplace 12
  • Thursday, Oct. 23 – 6:30 pm at AMC Castleton Square 14
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