Interview: BEYOND THE WOODS Star John Ryan Howard

Beyond The Woods is a highly entertaining Irish horror film from writer-director Sean Breathnach. When I reviewed it I said it was a small movie that packs a hefty punch which features strong performances and characterisation (read the review here).

I caught up John Ryan Howard, one of the film’s stars, and discussed what it’s like making a low budget horror movie.

Enjoy…

How did you get started as an actor?

My first dabble into acting was making home made horror movies with friends at age 10. I kept that up for a few years before I made the decision that acting is what I definitely want to pursue as a career at about 16/17. I can remember the moment I made that decision quite vividly. I was watching ‘Lethal Weapon’ on TV in the lead up to Christmas thinking about all these great characters Mel Gibson gets to play and I made my decision there and then and stuck to it ever since. Up to then I wasn’t sure was it film directing or acting I wanted to do more. I started into part-time acting classes at night with the Gaiety school of acting and started doing film acting workshops before enrolling in a 2 year full-time theatre performance course in Kinsale, Co. Cork. The course was directed by Belinda & Ian Wild who are both superb acting teachers and that training was invaluable to me. I started doing a lot of theatre outside of the course around then aswell including playing lead roles in productions like ‘A Picture Of Dorian Gray’ and Brian Friel’s ‘Translations’ thanks to a great theatre director and casting director – Cal Duggan.

How did you get involved in Beyond The Woods? What attracted you to the script?

What attracted me to the script was the fact it was a horror feature which I longed to work on and also the fact it was Sean Breathnach at the helm. I was at the launch of the Fastnet Film Festival one night in the Rising Sons Brewery in Cork and Sean Breathnach almost whispered to me he was going to make his debut feature during the summer and it was a horror and I was in the cast basically! He knew I’d jump at the opportunity and that I did!

You’ve worked with Sean Breathnach before – what’s your relationship like?

I have a great relationship with Sean Breathnach except for the very start of the relationship which involved me completely forgetting about our pre-arranged meeting at a hotel lobby for tea one day. I had been called up to Dublin for a couple of auditions and callbacks in the days leading up to the meeting and it must have thrown out what day I thought I had. When I got a text from him saying he was waiting over a half an hour in the lobby for me I was on a bus coming down from Dublin. I was completely embarrassed and ashamed of it. This was a director I really wanted to start working with whom I had a lot of respect for and I stood him up completely which I had never in my life done to anyone before or since. It was a long time before we met again understandably after a lot of apologies on my behalf. We met months later at a film festival networking night and really hit it off that night talking about our favourite horror movies and the work we both wanted to make. Sean would regularly tell me he had me written into horror projects he was sending in for funding applications etc. I played a very small role of a shopkeeper in a short film of his called ‘Searching For Ten’ followed by a music video called ‘Slow Crunch’ for ‘In Valour’ before eventually working on ‘Beyond The Woods.’ As a director he really leaves the actors work with minimal suggestions and guidance. He trusts you as an actor to shape the performance and character a lot. Sean Breathnach would be among my closest friends I would say which happened pretty organically over a good many years over our mutual love of horror really.

One of the things which makes the film stand-out is the characterisation. How much of this was in the script ad how much was brought by the actors?

The character work was very well developed in the script and Sean cast the actors who he felt already possessed a strong suitability towards those characters I would say. I think we as actors had a very clearly defined foundation to work from thanks to a solid script and very naturalistic dialogue.

Did you have much rehearsal time, or did you go straight into shooting?

We did have some rehearsal time on set prior to shooting any given scene and there had been a few read throughs before principal photography commenced that summer.

The other actors in the film are paired-off and have someone else to work with. Your character is very much an outsider. How did that impact your performance?

I think it helped to really define my character. It impacted me by giving me more of a license to make the character more introverted and reluctant to be there at all. Also my character is meant to be harboring a crush for Irene Kelleher’s character Lucy which made for an interesting performance for me and helped me to have some layers to the character aswell.

Your scenes are have a lot of weight to them – how did you prepare for them?

I drew from as much real life experience as I could that related to the situation Ger found himself in. Being around a couple of people I don’t really like and being in a social situation you don’t really want to be in and the mood you would find yourself in after being dumped recently etc. I spent a lot of time going over my lines in as many different ways as I could until I felt I found the right sequence of sorts.

Beyond The Woods is a low budget film, but there it features quite a bit of action and effects – how difficult was it for you as an actor working on something like this?

It was pretty difficult. The shoot days/nights were very long over 20 hours a couple of days. I had a bad dose of sinusitis for the last 5 days of shoot so I would wake up with a pounding headache behind my eye and felt completely drained of energy so that week in particular was a big struggle for me. That coincided with -4 degrees and a house you couldn’t keep warm as it had been unoccupied for months at the time of filming. It was certainly very difficult but the adrenaline got me through and a passion for wanting to make the best film possible like all the rest of the cast and crew.

What was the shoot like? Were there any challenges? 

The shoot was very demanding on everyone I think. The hours were very long followed by maybe 5 hours sleep a night/day if you were lucky. The atmosphere on set was fantastic though. Everyone got on with everyone. It was a very unique experience because during the course of the shoot we weren’t taking part in society. I didn’t get murdered and go to Starbucks for a tea afterwards and then come back to set or meet friends in between or go home. Sean Breathnach likened it to a retreat of sorts but not a holiday retreat, a working retreat. I was really looking forward to getting a proper nights sleep when the shoot was over but two days later I was depressed to be finished it. It was a roller coaster ride for me. The fact of it being my first feature film with a fantastic cast and crew and being such a huge horror fan since the age of 9.

One of the great thing about being an actor in a horror film must be getting a death scene – what was that like?

I think my death scene (spoiler alert) lol was my most difficult scene as it was shot when I was at my sickest and most sleep deprived. I had been up for over 16 hours and I remember I was waiting around a long time to do it psyching myself up and having to wait longer etc until we started filming it at about 5:30am. There was something pretty cool about it at the same time lying in wet muck in freezing temperatures with an axe wielding creature standing over me screaming at the top of my lungs at 5am! Just a normal day at the office! I went through a lot of coke to stay awake – of the canned variety that is! Lol

The film has been well received – how does that make you feel?

Delighted to hear so much positive feedback from other actors and filmmakers and horror/non-horror fans alike. The critical responses have been overwhelmingly on the positive side which of course is great to see. Horror films in particular seem to really divide critics and audiences alike I find. Even Kim Newman gave the film and performances a glowing review which was fantastic. The main thing as Sean Breathnach once said to me is that we made a film we could all be proud of and that I certainly am. No one can take that away from me.

What’s next for you?

What’s next for me? I honestly don’t know. There are a number of different projects that may or may not come to fruition. I could get a call tomorrow for a job I know nothing about as I answer this. That’s the beauty of acting I think your most exciting call could be 5 minutes away at any given moment. I hope that Sean Breathnach will hire me again for another horror feature and there’s some other great directors I really hope to work with in the near future some who have contacted me because of having watched ‘Beyond The Woods.’

Beyond The Woods is out now on DVD and VOD.

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