Questions and Answers with Apocalypse Clown director George Kane
Apocalypse Clown (photo source, Vertigo Releasing)
Writer-director George Kane was born in Ottawa, Canada, graduated from the National Film School of Ireland in Dublin, and has worked extensively in British television, where he helped write the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Award)-nominated science fiction sitcom Timewasters (2017-19) and has directed episodes of highly regarded TV series such as Back (2017-21), starring David Mitchell and Robert Webb, Brassic (2019- ), and Inside No. 9 (2022-23). He directed and co-wrote the feature film Discoverdale in 2012, a (very funny) comedy which won several international film festival prizes. His new film is Apocalypse Clown, an often hilarious dark comedy he also directed and co-written with his Discoverdale collaborators, which received an enthusiastic reception at the 2023 Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal. This e-mail interview was conducted shortly after the festival screenings, on August 17, 2023.
Offscreen (OS): This is the first time you have had a film screened at Fantasia. How was the experience?
George Kane (GK): We really enjoyed having our first international screenings there. It was gratifying to hear our stupid jokes landing across the Atlantic. Also lovely to reunite with Matthew Kiernan, who was such a champion of our previous film Discoverdale back in 2013!
OS: How did this film happen? What was the initial spark, and what were some of the hoops you had to jump through to get it made?
GK: The genesis of the project occurred over drinks after we won an award at the Galway Film Fleadh in 2013. We wondered – what next? The writers [Demian Fox, Shane O’Brien, and James Walmsley] had written and performed in an acclaimed play at the Dublin Fringe called Clowns and Jim explained that there was a real organization called Clowns Without Borders. They travel to war-torn, disadvantaged places around the globe and entertain children. Considering the general public attitude to clowns, that struck me as quite a funny notion. What if we plugged the three asshole clowns from the play into a humanitarian situation in West Africa? Envisioning a Tropic Thunder [Ben Stiller, 2008]-style romp, we set to work. It’s clearly evolved into something different since then, but the vision remained the same – a big, cinematic, and very silly adventure anchored by these brilliant characters.
OS: You seem to have done some research about clown history. How did that research shape or affect the film (if it did)? Was there really a major clown called DuCoq?
GK: A certain amount, and some of it fed into the characters – especially Pepe. DuCoq is basically a version of famous clown gurus Philippe Gaullier and Jacques Lecoq. In fact, Natalie, who plays Funzo, was in Chelsea and Hillary Clinton’s documentary TV series Gutsy (2022- ), with Gaullier himself. Sacha Baron Cohen studied with him. He’s notorious!
Fionn Foley as Lecoq wannabe Pepe (photo source, Vertigo Releasing)
OS: The most memorable character is Funzo, the scary clown, a riff on the Stephen King character from It (and, I guess, the fear of clowns he was tapping into). Can you talk about what this brings to the film in terms of its edginess and dark humour?
GK: The most common assumption is that this is a horror film of some kind, because that’s what clowns have largely become in the public consciousness. It’s unavoidable, but it allowed the writers to put a new spin on it with Funzo and do something original – she has no idea how horrifying she is! She’s got a ragged costume, a frequently alluded-to violent past, and a hair-trigger temper – but she’s like a playful puppy dog who just wants acceptance and wants to belong. So it gave Natalie plenty to work with, physically and psychologically! It also allowed us to make some nice dark and twisted jokes . . . She’s the agent of chaos!
OS: Funzo is played by real-life clown Natalie Palamides, in an inspired performance. Where did you find her and how much did she bring to shaping the character?
GK: We were all fans, having seen her perform live – and her Nate: A One Woman Show 1 confirmed she’s a totally fearless physical performer. (Check it out on Netflix.) She’s also an experienced voice actor in animation. I asked her to work on some roaming, hard-to-place European accent rather than use her own US accent, and she delivered! We also worked together on the make-up look with our brilliant Belgian team, and I’m so happy with how it all came together. I imagined her like a lit match, flame-haired – and with a ruff that makes her look like a Dilophosaurus! You can’t take your eyes off her when she’s on screen.
Natalie Palamides as Funzo (photo source, Vertigo Releasing)
OS: How much room for improvisation did the actors have in general?
GK: I think we all felt the dialogue was so strong that we didn’t need much. We also didn’t have a whole lot of time for it! But I was happy to allow a certain looseness. A performer like David Earl thrives on that, as his role [as Brian] in Ricky Gervais’ TV series After Life (2019-22) proves. They all had unplanned moments that made their way on screen – and our rehearsal period threw up some excellent stuff that we held on to. Funzo’s nose removal, for instance!
Brian (David Earl) performs with Funzo and Pepe (photo source, Vertigo Releasing)
OS: Ivan Kaye plays a different type of creepy clown: The Great Alphonso, a once famous circus performer who turns into an evil mastermind not too far removed from a Bond villain.
GK: The film needed a big bad, and the writers liked the idea of an alpha clown who has a very inflated sense of his own skill, celebrity, and importance. And as we’re all very clued in to the world of British comedy and popular culture, we didn’t need to look far in finding disgraced reference points . . . There’s also just something very funny about two pathetic clowns facing off in a constant dick-swinging contest every five minutes. I worked with Ivan Kaye on a Disney series called Wedding Season (2022), and knew he’d relish the pomp and grandeur of Alphonso and the opportunity to chew the scenery with that rich baritone!
OS: There is a wonderfully surreal climax where there is a very physical fight between Alphonso and the sad clown Bobo. Where did that come from?
GK: Without giving anything away, it’s a direct literal manifestation of what Bobo and Alphonso have been building to throughout the film. It’s also an utterly ridiculous way to climax the story. One day, the writers Jim [Walmsley] and Shane [O’Brien] sent me a rough edit slo-mo video of themselves acting out the idea and I genuinely nearly wet myself laughing. I’m fairly confident in saying it’s the silliest ending in Irish film history.
Ivan Kaye as The Great Alphonso (photo source, Vertigo Releasing)
OS: While doing research, I learned that you directed the very funny fake documentary Discoverdale (2012), in which an ill-assorted group more or less stalk Whitesnake lead singer David Coverdale during a European tour. In Apocalypse Clown, you have an even more ill-assorted group on a road trip. Is this a structure that you like because it allows for a series of sketches, or are their other advantages?
GK: It’s purely a result of the same team of writers developing both projects. They played the main roles in Discoverdale, and originally played the clowns on stage. We go back about 15 years now! For me, if you get the balance of roles and casting right, then you benefit from a brilliant ensemble trio sparking of each other. I’m an enormous Marx Brothers fan, so anything that reminds me of their anarchic energy works for me.
OS: Doing more research, it turns out you have worked on a lot of successful British TV series, including episodes of cult favourite Inside No. 9 (2014- ). Is that sort of dark British humour an influence on your work? What are some other influences?
GK: Sure, I grew up watching it, so it’s definitely in my bones. Everything from Brass Eye (1997) and The Day Today (1994) to Python [Monty Python’s Flying Circus, 1969-74] to Big Train (1998-2002) to The Mighty Boosh (2004-7) to Pete & Dud [Peter Cook and Dudley Moore]. [Vic] Reeves and [Bob] Mortimer are one of those acts that could crease me over laughing, without ever really knowing why I was laughing so hard. One thing the British have always done well – very very smart people being very very silly.
Clowns on the road (photo source, Vertigo Releasing)
OS: Can you talk about the film scene in Ireland? Is there a film scene? To the extent it exists, how much is due to government subsidies? There seems to be a boom in both Irish-language and horror films. Where does a film like Apocalypse Clown fit into this?
GK: Of course there’s a film scene. Government grants, Screen Ireland, the BAI [Broadcasting Authority of Ireland] . . . all help develop new talent enormously and give a wide variety of projects a chance to exist. There’s a lot of foreign co-production too, and international productions come to Ireland, north and south, for location and studio work. It’s a busy place! As for where Apocalypse Clown fits in, I have no idea. I’m not sure it fits anywhere!
OS: Will Apocalypse Clown be distributed in cinemas in Ireland and the UK? Will it be distributed anywhere else? Are there plans for it to be released in Canada and the US?
GK: It’s released in Ireland and the UK on September 1, and will be available in many foreign territories too, including North America. More to be revealed!
OS: Do you have a new project that you are working on?
GK: Always. I’m close to wrapping up post-production on a new Apple comedy series called The Completely Made-Up Adventures of Dick Turpin, starring Noel Fielding of The Mighty Boosh and an amazing rogues’ gallery of top comedy faces. Other than that, I’m developing a new film I’ve written – a psychological drama (with humour) about a reformed stalker that’s set in Montreal. No clowns in this one.
- Palamides first performed the show in 2018, it was filmed and premiered on Netflix in 2020 ↩