Interview | Nigel Mulligan, Writer-Director of Short Film Dust

Writer-director Nigel Mulligan is making quite a stir with his latest short Dust, a dark nightmarish thriller focusing on a young woman and avid gamer named Cassie (Sorcha Fahy). Struggling with mental health issues and a trauma in her past, she dives head first into Dublin’s party scene – experimenting with new drug 2CB.

At the same time, Cassie meets Art (Jamie Doyle), someone bitter from a break-up. He falls for the protagonist’s existential meanderings. However, in the haze of 2CB – reality and fantasy begin to blur for Cassie, drawing Art into her inevitable collapse.

Featuring some impressive psychedelic effects on a shoe-string budget and a story which feels contemporary and relevant, it’s no surprise Dust has earned slots at festivals in Amsterdam and Berlin. I spoke to Mulligan about the film and how it came about.

Congratulations on Dust. How would you describe the short?

Dust has many threads running through it but in short it is a story about a young woman who is attempting to understand her existence in the contemporary digital age. I am fascinated with our time now, and I do feel for young minds, as they are in a world that they didn’t create but were born into and are expected to get on with it.

They face much more complicated challenges than the generations before. They have infinite access through the limitless on-line social media and gaming world which can offer something, connections or even temporary escapism. But this can be too much and blur the reality-fantasy divide. If there is a glitch in our psychological system, perceptions can be misleading. Cassie, the protagonist is a girl who is not afraid to ask the big questions, be vulnerable. She experiments in the party scene and as the audience will find out she attempts to play this world at its own game.

The movie feels like a cocktail of Lynchian horror, psychedelic visuals and gritty real world issues. Where did the idea for Dust originate from?

I love that you mentioned David Lynch as he is a very influential figure for me. I had plenty of in-depth conversations with the editor John who also shares a love of his work. His obscurer films continue to intrigue me, particularly Inland Empire and the latest Twin Peaks. They make you work hard to find the narrative as opposed to it being handed to you. As such his films stay with you long after they end.

I got to meet David years ago at a talk in Trinity. I asked him did he use the theory of psychoanalysis and the unconscious in developing his concepts. He simply replied: “If I am I am not conscious of it as that’s why its called the unconscious.” After that, I began to truly understand that his work is very instinctual and he doesn’t need to analyse his own process but lets the creativity emerge.

The Lynchian universe is both beautiful and brutal. Some of that brutality I am familiar with in my work with very vulnerable people as a psychotherapist in Dublin. The origin of Dust came from working everyday with people who struggle to fit in, never mind make sense of the world in which they live. Sometimes they do not know who they are. This more severe level of existential confusion has names such as psychosis, schizophrenia or melancholia. I am truly inspired by their creative attempts to not only survive and make sense of their lives but to just exist in this unforgiving senseless world.

Through the film there was an opportunity to inflict on the audience the question of what was real and what was fantasy, and moreover a nightmare. I think we did a great job of creating a cinematic psychosis of sorts as everyone who has seen it continues to debate what was happening. The story of Dust is very familiar to me and to many but it was the gift of Sorcha and Jamie who did a wonderful job in bringing these characters alive.

How did you find being behind the camera? Was it difficult juggling the tone between the kitchen sink drama of the day-time scenes and the drug-induced hallucinogenic feel of the party sequences?

I directed a short film about 15 years ago with Jamie and my brother Gordon called Shadow People. It had been a while so Dust was a beginning of sorts. It all began when I started taking some screenwriting classes and I had a rough draft of a semi-fictional J1 adventure. When I showed it to a producer friend of mine, he said that it would cost around 20 million to make. He suggested I write a short and try and get that made. From there, the story and characters of Dust just dripped off my tongue.

That was the easiest part. The hardest was the shoot. However, it was made much easier for me by my DOP Karl Dillon. We discussed the more technical aspects of certain scenes and he made a lot of the impossible possible. This juggling was enjoyable. I knew that anything I suggested – usually discussing other films as a reference point to what I wanted – he would either reply ‘yes we can do that’, or ‘no, lets do something better.’

How much did the film cost to make. I ask because the drug trip sequences look very impressive. How were they done?

After writing the script I had applied to a lot of places for funding and was unsuccessful. So a few dedicated core crew members said they would do it free of charge. This allowed us to get shooting and use a very limited self-funded budget.

Again much of the high end look was down to Karl’s eye and us trying out creative ways to create an atmosphere. One scene was shot at a real party which actually got out of hand. Another drug-trip scene was rendered using experimentation with natural moonlight and artificial shadows. A lot can be done with smoke and mirrors. It just takes patience and thinking outside the box.

Having no budget and being only accountable to ourselves, we were able to try new things and re-work the script at times. Again it is a testament to the patience of the cast and crew to not rush it. If it was too cloudy on a day that was meant to glorious, we would wrap up and get up early the next morning and try it again.

You recently screened Dust at ARFF Amsterdam. What was the reaction like?

Fantastic. It was a dream for me and it was a joy to watch it with not only some cast and crew but my international peers. Plus the psychedelic city of Amsterdam was no better place to share it with audiences. As we know, it’s a place well known for its selling of magic mushrooms. I love this radical attitude in Holland but I find it progressive too.

Magic mushrooms have been around for a long time. I find there is a similarity in old tribes using their chemical properties in rituals and contemporary drug use. There is a search for something else, a loosening of the ego that enables a deeper understanding of our place in the world. This was ultimately the protagonist Cassie’s desire to know the deeper mysteries. Her experimental drug use was not only attempt to heal herself but to understand her place in a broken world.

Will wider audiences get a chance to see it soon? What are your release plans?

Yes they will. We are currently working the festival circuit and have applied to some Irish festivals. Until this promo is over it will not be going to TV or an on-line link. Obviously we would recommend seeing it on the big screen for full effect. But we have a website where you can find all our latest updates and progress. We will be releasing songs from the soundtrack there too over the next few months. Also anyone can email us at [email protected] if they have any specific questions.

What are you working on next?

I am in the early writing phase of a possible feature length or series. The working title is Liquid Love. It explores similar themes to Dust – focusing on the younger generation and how society can turn a blind eye to trauma and abuse. This is something Ireland has experienced not only in its recent history, but continues to ignore now. I have the story. Now I need to develop the characters and the plot to tell it.

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