Hey, friends! Barbarella here. If you didn’t get enough of Amber Heard’s acting from the Johnny Depp trial (heh heh), she’s starring in a movie currently available On Digital and On Demand. Conor Allyn’s IN THE FIRE takes us to a religious village where a little boy (Lorenzo McGovern Zaini) is believed to be possessed. A young, female doctor of psychology (Amber Heard) travels to the village to try to help the boy and his family during a time when psychology is only beginning to emerge on the scene. An outcast herself, she connects with the boy and must attempt to save him from the villagers who are convinced he’s the cause of all their misfortune.
While I love the concept of science versus faith, and I appreciate how Conor Allyn approaches it here, I struggle with the choices regarding Amber Heard’s performance, primarily when it comes to delivering dialogue. Although I believe she intentionally delivers lines stiffly to convey that she’s more rational than emotional, it just comes across as robotic and really makes her seem inhuman, making it harder to connect with her struggle. The film’s saving grace is Eduardo Noriega, who owns every scene he’s in as he portrays the struggling father of a child even he believes is evil.
I had an opportunity to chat with writer/director Conor Allyn about it. Check it out!
Barbara: I feel like a lot of your work revolves around outsiders or outcasts. From where does that interest come?
Conor: I went through some formative years at school where I felt very much like I was an outcast and an outsider. I had a rough period – many people do – in middle school, and whether I want to or not, I think that pushes through in my work and my stories and my writing. I care about connecting with those people and talking about them. I think most people feel like an outsider at some point in their lives, so that is definitely an origination story for this movie. It’s about this little boy who is ostracized from his community because of differences, biological and psychological, that he has. He’s an extreme version of an exile. Amber Heard’s character, Doctor Grace, is also very much an outcast. She’s a woman doctor back when there were very, very few of those. She’s an alienist, a doctor of psychology, back when psychology was not at all a respected science, so she’s an exile who’s kind of going to the edge of the world to prove herself. These two outcasts, who don’t make emotional connection very easily, end up doing just that.
Barbara: I love the expiration of faith versus science. Did you ever see the movie ZALAVA?
Barbara: It’s an Iranian film that came out a few years ago. It’s a horror film, but it also addresses that topic (while generating an insane amount of tension around a pickle jar - is there or is there not a demon in it?). That movie came to mind when I was watching yours, because it’s all about those competing beliefs and how fanatical people can get about their faith. I’d like you to tell me a little bit about that exploration in your movie.
Conor: Whenever you do a period movie, you want it to have a great resonance with the modern audience. I mean, that’s the point, even if you’re reaching back 130 years to tell a story, it’s really about what’s going on today. That’s definitely the case with this movie. I mean, we’re in a time where whatever side you’re on on any issue, we’re very tribal. We tend to really just speak in absolutes, and if someone is on the other side of an issue, or even if the middle, you don’t just disagree, they’re wrong. They’re evil. That plays out for sure when it comes to religious faith, but then there’s also just belief and faith as it relates to believing in something, whether it’s about religion or not, and people often substitute faith for facts, belief for facts. They’re different, and it creates a lot of friction in our world, which we’re seeing today on a daily basis.
Barbara: What’s more difficult to work with: horses, fire, or actors?
Conor: (laughing) It depends on the actor, I guess, or the horse. Totally different challenges. Fire is sort of the most in control, if you have a good people doing it, up to a point. For the scenes in this movie where we had big fires happening – it’s called IN THE FIRE, so you better have some fires, you know what I mean – we had built sets. We had controlled practical fires happening that we were in control of, while the actors were in the sets. Once we were done with the dialogue and the scenes, we lit the structures on fire and let them burn, and they do what they do. Horses are kind of reliable, but also not. We had scenes with horses where they did exactly what we hoped and asked, and then we had scenes where the horses just didn’t want to play along.
Barbara: Those divas.
Conor: We we’re asking a lot of the horses. You know, we had scenes with a guy riding in on a horse into a mob of people with torches and fire at night, and the horses are tired, and they don’t know we’re shooting a movie, so it was hard. Fortunately, actors Eduardo Noriega and Amber Heard are both super-confident horse people, so I was blessed with that. Otherwise, it gets really tricky and dangerous. Then actors are great, if they’re fully committed to the movie, which, in this case, we had a very committed cast who only wanted the best for the movie, so that part’s pretty easy.
Barbara: What kind of homework or prep work did you give your cast prior to this?
Conor: Most of the homework related either with Amber Heard or Lorenzo Zaini, who played Martin, the young boy. It was reading about psychology, psychiatry, and medicine of the mind from that period, so a challenge. Anything written after 1899 was off-limits. We really could only read about being an alienist in the sort of original texts of Freud and stuff which was really interesting and illuminating, but also you read some things, and you’re like, “Ooh, they got that wrong.” Certain things that were cutting-edge science nowadays wouldn’t hold water. It also gave us a lot to play with. I read that hypnosis was sort of cutting-edge psychology at the time, so we worked in my favorite scene in the movie - the scene of hypnosis where Amber is using hypnosis to gain emotional traction and elicit some responses from this little boy, and then the boy, either disturbed, possessed by the devil, or just a savant capable of great intellectual powers, kind of turns the hypnosis on her. That was cutting-edge science at the time, and we get to play with that, which was really cool.
Barbara: Would you share a story from set that best describes what it was like working with Lorenzo?
Conor: Sure. I’m going to stick with the hypnosis scene because that was a big powerful scene between the two of them, and I’ll preface by saying Lorenzo’s halfway to his character in real life. I met this boy. He’s eleven years old, speaks three languages, learned how to speak Spanish and Latin for his parts in the movie that required those languages, and got pretty proficient at the violin for his violin scenes in just a couple of weeks. He is just a very studied young man. We rehearsed that scene quite a bit. He really knew what he wanted to achieve with it. He just really understood. For a young kid to be that in touch with the script and advanced - for any actor to be like that - is awesome. Surprising to me, I would have scenes like that, where I find myself giving him very subtle direction. He’s already doing a really good job, and I find myself talking to him in a way where I’m like not talking to a little boy, you know? I’m talking to someone who’s a highly educated, professional actor. It would just be mind-blowing for me to see him go from taking in this information from me and exerting it in the way that he is - it’s so impressive, so mature - and then he goes and gives his mom a hug, and says, “Oh mommy, I love you,” and I’m like, “Oh, you’re a kid.”
Barbara: I always like to shine a light on the unsung hero. Who in the crew was MVP for you?
Conor: Oh. Gosh, I hate to pick just one person. I would say probably our wardrobe supervisor. She’s this Italian woman, and she just was brilliant. She spoke very rough English – better than my Italian – but I was really worried about hiring somebody I really couldn’t communicate with directly through language. I had a call with her where her assistant Delilah could translate for me, and she so brilliantly sketched up stuff. She was clearly going to do a great job, and she did, We’re doing something that’s Victorian era, and if the wardrobe is weak, I just think the whole thing falls apart. Amber comes out from her first fitting, and she’s in the big red dress from the opening of the movie, and I was just like, “Damn, I’m glad you’re working on this movie. You did such a good job.” That’s an unsung hero for me, to do as much as she did with as few resources, an independent budget – independent budget is a fancy phrase for no money. Pretty darn impressive.
If you want to check out Amber Heard, Eduardo Noriega, Lorenzo McGovern Zaini, and Luca Calvani in IN THE FIRE, it’s available now On Digital and On Demand. Check out the trailer.