The 405 sat down with director Ian Hunt Duffy of the taut, well-executed, one-situation, short thriller Gridlock. We talk influences, film-making, the nature of a great thriller, Hitchcock, and crowd psychology.

Gridlock is an Irish spin on an American style thriller, set during a traffic jam on a narrow country road. When Eoin's (Moe Dunford) young daughter Emma (Robyn Dempsey) goes missing from their car, he forms a desperate search party to find her. But as panic takes hold among the other drivers, the search for a missing girl quickly descends into a frenzied witch-hunt, where no one is above suspicion.

I highly recommend catching the film on the festival circuit if you can. It is an incredible exercise in tension and a brilliant "whodunnit", also starring Peter Coonan, Steve Wall, and Amy De Bhrún.

Having graduated from the National Film School in Ireland with a BA in Film
and Television Production, Ian set up his own production company in Dublin called Fail Safe Films. Over the last 6 years, Fail Safe has established itself as one of the leading producers of online video content in Ireland, while also gaining a reputation for award-winning short films and music videos. Having originally trained as a director, Ian brings a drive and creative flair to each production.

In 2012, Ian produced the Filmbase/RTÉ short film Small Time, starring Alan
and Charlie Murphy, which won numerous awards at home and abroad, including the Best Comedy Award at the Fastnet Film Festival and the Audience Award at the Science Fiction & Fantasy Film Festival in Seattle. At that time Ian also directed the online comedy series Talk It Out as part of RTÉ Storyland, starring Mark Doherty, Bernard O'Shea and Peter Coonan; while another Fail Safe short, The Note, starred Aidan Gillen and Ruth McCabe and was officially selected for the prestigious Raindance Film Festival and Flickers Rhode Island International Film Festival in 2013.

In 2015, Ian produced the IFTA Nominated and Academy Award® long-listed Love is a Sting for Filmbase and RTÉ. Narrated by Ciarán Hinds and written by Academy Award® winner Benjamin Cleary, the film is an ambitious mix of live action and animation that won the Grand Prix Irish Short at the Cork Film Festival in 2015, along with the Best Foreign Film Award at the LA Shorts Fest and the Transcedence Award at the Savannah Film Festival in 2016.

Gridlock won the Grand Prix Irish Short Award at the 2016 Cork Film Festival and the Best Irish Short Award at the Foyle Film Festival, placing it on the long-list for the Academy Awards® in 2018.

Welcome Ian to the 405! I'd like to start by asking you to please inform our readers a bit about your history that we may get to know you better. What got you into film-making?

Thanks for having me! I was fascinated with film from a very young age. As a child, myself and my brother would spend countless hours filming short clips and videos with an old camcorder, or attempt to recreate scenes from our favourite movies. Cinema has that unique power to completely transport you to another world and immerse you in all these different stories, and for a few hours make you forget about everything else. So I always had a passion for film-making, and once I found out that people actually did this as a job, that was all I wanted to do.

Favorite directors? Favorite films? Which have been most influential on you as an artist?

There are many directors that would be big influences for me personally. I grew up watching John Carpenter and James Cameron movies, and my all-time favourite film is Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It's just a stunning and iconic movie, one that I saw when I was far too young and has left an indelible impression on me ever since.  I'm also a huge fan of David Fincher, Fight Club being another favourite of mine. Fincher is a master at creating atmosphere and has such a meticulous approach to performance and composition, so that is very inspiring and something I will strive for going forward. But inspiration comes from all manner of films and directors, of every genre. I also watch lots of different TV series as some of the best and most exciting drama is now happening on television.

Greatest triumphs and greatest challenges as a film-maker?

I suppose one of our greatest triumphs was when we won our first major awards – winning Best Film at two different Oscar Qualifying festivals on the same night. It was such a surprise and an incredible honor, and it really kick started our whole festival journey with Gridlock this last year, screening all over the world. My main goal with Gridlock was always to make something entertaining, to direct the kind of film that I would like to see, so it was always made for an audience first and foremost. I've been fortunate enough to watch Gridlock with audiences in a few different countries, and it's great to see the different reactions to the film. Because it's a "whodunnit" film you often see people whispering to the person next to them about who they think it is, or guessing what will happen next, so that's a personal triumph for me, as it's deeply rewarding and satisfying to know that an audience is fully engaging with your film and getting caught up in the mystery.

In terms of challenges then, on short films it usually boils down to time and money and not having enough of either. You always set out to tell as exciting and ambitious a story as possible, and budgets on short films are usually tight so it forces you to be creative. On Gridlock we couldn't afford many action vehicles and so we had to make up the majority of the traffic jam using only cast and crew cars. Our road became their car-park! The only problem with that was that at the end of each day, everyone would inevitably have to drive away, so it meant that we had to reset and restage the traffic jam each and every morning!

We also had to change our location at the very last minute when our original road fell through, so a number of shots and setups we had planned had to either be adapted or lost entirely on the day. But thankfully this tighter and more restricted road that we ended up using really boxed us and the characters in even further and informed the way we shot the film in a positive way. I think it helped to generate a sense of claustrophobia throughout the story even though its outdoors, and it meant that myself and my cinematographer Narayan Van Maele had to get closer to the characters, really getting in amongst the mob and crowd during the action and closing the space in around you.

One other big challenge then was contending with the Irish weather, which is notoriously changeable at the best of times, and even though we were filming during the summer, I think we experienced all four seasons of weather throughout the shoot! So it was definitely a challenge for continuity as one day it would be sunny, while the next it might be lashing rain, so both Narayan and our colourist Eoghan McKenna did a great job creating a consistency throughout.

What to you makes a great film? And I have to ask because of Gridlock's nature: what makes a great thriller?

For me, the most important element of any great film is always the story. What's it about? That's the first question anyone will ever ask, so you need to have a compelling answer. Especially in a thriller you really need to grab the audience's attention with a good hook, and so we wanted the "whodunnit" nature of Gridlock to grip the audience and keep them guessing what will happen next.

Another requirement of a thriller is that is actually thrilling and suspenseful, and for me this came down to pacing, the challenge always to find the right pace in the edit. My editor Eoin McGuirk and I spent a lot of time working together during post production, really honing the pace and flow of the film over numerous cuts. The script for Gridlock was a quick and exciting read, so we wanted to make sure that energy and urgency translated to the screen.

Getting into Gridlock, a brilliantly-executed piece of white-knuckle thriller cinema (I'm a big fan of the genre myself), what was the spark of inspiration for the story? I love the use of Emma's doll as what was essentially a MacGuffin, or at the very least a way to ratchet up the tension and leave the viewer off-balance. Did Hitchcock factor in as an inspiration for the film? The twist as well: just wow.

Wow, thank you. I'm delighted you enjoyed it! Hitchcock was a huge inspiration for Gridlock. He's the master of suspense for a reason, so I was re-watching a lot of his movies in pre-production, films that were relevant to our story like Lifeboat, which also features a group of people in one location slowing turning on each other. I love high-concept thrillers that are set in a single location and I always wanted to do my own version. Myself and writer Darach McGarrigle are both fans of old television shows like The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents –shows that managed to fit a huge amount of tension and suspense into a 20-minute episode, so we wanted to see if we could achieve that with a short film and create an exciting mystery for an audience to solve.

As for the ending, I don't want to spoil it for viewers who haven't seen it yet, but our aim was always to have a satisfactory and surprising reveal to the mystery, and hopefully stay one step ahead of the audience if we could. I really wanted to end on a strong note and leave an impact, and it seems to have worked. Hopefully Gridlock plays just as well on a second viewing too once you know the ending, as there are many clues along the way you may have missed the first time around.

I also found the commentary on crowd psychology that Gridlock affects very compelling. What in your view does the film have to say about that? And what would you like audiences to take away from it?

The main theme I wanted to explore in Gridlock is paranoia and mob mentality taking over, and how dangerous prejudices and stereotyping can be. Throughout the film we see how easy it is for people to turn on each other when they're scared and panicking. But they don't just turn on each other indiscriminately, they band together and pick on those they see as weak or different, something that is particularly relevant given the current political climate. Gridlock also comments on how easily a victim can turn into a perpetrator, that sometimes people don't always learn the right lessons from their own mistreatment. For example, there is a character in the film who initially is a victim of the mob and accused of taking the girl. But once cleared of suspicion, they immediately point the finger at others and vent their own prejudices.

There's a slight satirical element to it where you have different parts of Irish society coming together, and the traffic jam as a setting was a good way to throw together these people who wouldn't normally interact. The posh couple initially look down on Peter Coonan's working-class character, but end up being led by him. Whereas the man who refuses to let his car be searched can represent any outsider in society. He's strange and different and easy to suspect, and he becomes a kind of blank slate that people can project their own fears and prejudices onto. But neither myself nor the writer Darach McGarrigle intended the characters to be merely symbolic, or just stand-ins for different parts of society.

Gridlock has very a heightened situation, but we always wanted each character to feel like real people you could know. And they all come together, all these very different people, but in a negative way. They're united by their fear and suspicion.

Last, where can our readers catch the film? And what is next for you?

Gridlock is still on the festival circuit and we have a few more screenings at the start of next year to be announced, so follow us on Facebook for updates. As for what's next, I'm currently developing my first feature film with Darach. It's another high-concept thriller set in a single location called Double Blind.

We're big fans of 'siege' style movies, where a group of people are trapped in a single location and must fight to survive. Movies like Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing, and more recently Green Room are all brilliant examples of taut and efficient thrillers set in one location, and Darach came up with a great idea for how to do our own spin on it. It will also be another opportunity for me as a director to work with an ensemble cast, so I'm very excited about it.

We also have another short film called Low Tide which will be going into production next year, which is more of a horror/ghost story, but also has some really tense moments. A chiller you might say.