Spoiler Warning! This article is packed to the brim with Vivarium spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film, go check it out and then come back to enjoy. Vivarium is now available on Digital and VOD.
Writer-director Lorcan Finnegan and writer Garret Shanley make a big impression with their second feature film Vivarium. The movie stars Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg as a young couple looking for a home who wind up trapped in a disturbingly sterile development called Yonder. It’s a fairly simple set-up that soon reveals a slew of troubling thematic and world-building complexities that’ll burrow their way into your brain and will likely linger for a while.
I, for one, haven’t been able to stop thinking about Vivarium since watching it for two reasons – one, it challenges you to rethink what you think you want and, two, because I quickly became obsessed with wanting to know all the rules and details. Finnegan was kind enough to hop on the phone with me to answer my laundry list of questions, but he also did note, “I think there’s no wrong interpretation of the film. And I’m really interested in other people’s interpretations, as is Garrett, because you don’t even really know where ideas come from. They sort of percolate through absorption of whatever your culture and society is creating at the time.”
That right there is one of the most exciting things about cinema and storytelling in general; your particular interpretation of a movie isn’t invalid if it doesn’t perfectly align with the filmmaker’s precise intentions or with what everyone else thinks. That approach to making movies seems to have worked in Vivarium‘s favor quite a bit, making it one of the most exciting movies to discuss thus far this year. There are a lot of interesting ideas out there about the specifics of how Yonder operates that I urge you to explore, but right now, here are Finnegan’s answers to some of my burning questions.
To get us started, can you give a little overview of where this story idea started?
LORCAN FINNEGAN: We made a short film in 2008. It’s called Foxes. And through making Foxes it opened some doors towards themes that we wanted to explore more fully with Vivarium. So Foxes was set in a ghost estate, which are these empty housing developments that sprung up around Ireland around 2008 when the economy crashed. Just before that there’d been a massive building boom during the Celtic Tiger. You know, this sort of economic boom in Ireland. In the short, there’s a couple trapped in this kind of abandoned housing development with nature encroaching on the place, and the young woman escapes by rejoining nature so it was very much a supernatural story. It’s a little like Irish folklore, closer to Irish folklore.
Even just during the process of making the film by scouting and by talking to the various developers and going through these kind of huge empty housing developments and just absorbing the atmosphere of the climate at the time, we started thinking about the itemization of society, the separation of community from the natural world and the loss of actual community altogether, and people feeling isolated and sort of trapped in these social contracts, and actual contracts with banks. So there were all these kind of things that we were just touching on slightly in the short film that we wanted to expand upon in a more philosophical sense, and through sci-fi rather than supernatural.
Around the same time – this is like, very early on. We were just sort of spit balling ideas and we were thinking, ‘What if one of these kind of housing developments went on forever, like it was a quantum trap?’ And then we were also thinking, ‘What is it that young people are afraid of these days on a more existential level?’ Are they afraid of big weird winged creatures or are they afraid of their lives becoming repetitive and boring, and all their hopes and dreams getting sucked away by making a couple of wrong choices? Or being tricked into a situation that they hadn’t quite predicted that they’d end up getting stuck in. So we were trying to create a monster that would be relevant for that story, and kind of represent consumer capitalism and all of that stuff. Around the same time, Garrett and I were watching this documentary about the lifecycle of the European cuckoo. That kind of opened a door towards something else, which brewed parasitism and ultimately led to the creation of this estate agent as the antagonist, or the antagonistic species in the film.
Let’s get into the specifics now. Who specifically created Yonder?
FINNEGAN: These people. They’re basically offering people what it appears that they want. It appears that people want a nice house in a little quiet place and with a big enough garden, and large enough rooms, you know? … But because they’re not human, they have no humanity and therefore don’t understand human emotional needs or artistic needs or any of that, so they kind of gave you what it appears you want. A little bit like the market itself. But it’s completely devoid of character. There’s something just slightly off about everything. Every house looks exactly the same, the colors are a little bit wonky, the grass is all kind of fake. So everything they’re offering up is sort of artificial and lacked human heart, essentially. It’s open to interpretation! People will come up with some interesting ideas … [Laughs]
I’ve read quite a few of them!
FINNEGAN: To me, it’s like they have a symbiotic relationship with people, just like a cuckoo does with a reed warbler for example. And they have been living in parallel with us as far back as history goes. Perhaps even they were like a hominid at some point and split off. But I’ve read stuff about aliens and all of that as well. I mean, it really depends on your definition of what an alien is, I guess. As in, not all aliens have to come from spaceships and from space, or whatever.
The alien thing crossed my mind, too. And it did because of that moment when the boy was imitating the other person he saw, so what inspired that look for what he does there?
FINNEGAN: They have this kind of magpie rattle. I guess there’s an avian influence on the whole film. [Laughs] Once we started talking about cuckoos sharing things with other birds, and magpies are certainly annoying black and white birds. They make a horrible kind of rattling sound, and especially when there’s a bunch of them around. It’s quite aggressive and irritating. So that’s how they communicate with each other, their throat sounds. And they make this kind of magpie’s rattling sound. And there are more of them, yeah. I mean, there are thousands of them. [Laughs] Or maybe more.
But there’s a lot of them, and they can also manipulate time, not unlike how fairies are depicted in Irish folklore. People could get lost in a forest, which actually we explored a little bit in our first film, Without Name. And time can be warped, so they can manipulate time and dimensions, similar to string theory essentially. That different realities are vibrating on slightly different frequencies, but they’re all stacked up together. That’s why they can create this place that you can get lost in, and kind of go around in a loop.
Do you know physically where Yonder exists?
FINNEGAN: Garrett and I talked about that the houses are actually like formed almost like fungus. Like they could sprout from the grind as fibrous things, but then harden into the shape of exactly what it appears that people want. And that there would be several of these kind of blister universes, like a parallel universe within kind of a blister sitting on top of the earth’s surface. So if you drive into it and drive around, you can’t kind of escape because the rules of reality are kind of bent once you cross the threshold.
So when Gemma crawls underneath the sidewalk, is that another parallel universe?
FINNEGAN: Yeah, but she isn’t designed to travel through all of that. It’s like a foreign body within flesh. You know, the way flesh will push out a metal or something like that? She’s not supposed to be in any of those other houses, but she pushed through them and put back into her own box, essentially. So the idea – to me anyway – it’s like maybe more of those houses are occupied. It seems like they’re all empty. Kind of parallels people not talking to their neighbors or feeling isolated within these communities, that they’re all kind of stacked up on top of each other, but can’t see each other.
What inspired the choice to make each house she visited during that little trip a different color?
FINNEGAN: Really, it was to differentiate them, first of all. But also we’d been in this kind of greenish environment for so long in the film, I wanted to harass the audience with cutting red and increase the anxiety. Because that greenish color is, theoretically anyway, on a psychological level, an anxiety-inducing color if you spend enough time looking at it, and particularly when it’s sort of removed from nature and it takes on a toxic quality. But it also makes your eyes adjust to having not much red in your field of vision for a long time. So then cutting to red when she goes into the room, and then the next room is kind of that toxic green.
Why exactly does Tom get sick?
FINNEGAN: Well, I think if any human was living in that environment, they’d get sick. There’s no sun. The sun was fake, sky is fake, clouds are fake, food is fake. He’s digging through some strange dirt, which he’s constantly breathing in, sleeping in that hole quite often. But essentially it’s completely devoid of nature. There’s nothing natural in there at all. And that was something that we were kind of planning on from the beginning, just creating this environment to reflect the worry of what would happen if – humanity seems to be moving further and further from nature, from the natural world, and has no problem chopping down vast glades of forest to produce more meat for burgers … So we were thinking, what would happen if all of that was removed entirely? Could you even survive sort of living in basically a catalog?
I also have to ask about what the boy sees on the TV, and also what he could be reading in that book?
FINNEGAN: The TV is educating him, teaching him about how to be what he is. [Laughs] And also showing him how to get in and out of the place. What’s on TV is the diffusion reaction pattern, which is essentially a fractal pattern, which is not unlike what one of these housing developments looks like from above. Because developers tend to find a piece of land and use a fractal pattern to fit as many houses into a space as possible, to maximize the profits. So the TV’s reflective of that, and it’s also reflective of the nature of the child, which is like a magpie. He wears black and white, the TV’s black and white. He doesn’t have a range of emotional color so he just sees everything in terms of black and white, in a way.
And for the book, it’s like a form of education as well, but a more advanced stage. I mean, people sit there in the real world and look at their kids watching weird shit on TV or the internet all day and don’t really understand it, and become alienated from their own kids. So it’s not too much of a leap I don’t think.
What’s the meaning of number nine to you?
FINNEGAN: Yeah, I’ve seen some interesting stuff! [Laughs] I saw something today about nine months of incubation for a child, and all this kind of stuff. The number nine does appear in all sorts of occult stuff. And Garrett, the writer, can’t quite remember where it came from. And I thought that we had discussed it; I can’t remember now. It’s tricky. But to me it’s always been, if you imagine drawing the number nine, it’s like going into a circle, and it then becomes a loop.
With these beings that are operating Yonder, do they have a specific goal to serve themselves?
FINNEGAN: Yeah, just like ours, to Survive. That’s it! They don’t have a master plan to take over the world or anything. They want to survive, just like we want to survive. If they are successful, they’ll breed well, just like humans have.