‘Tummy Monster’ Interview with Director Ciaran Lyons and Actors Lorn Macdonald & Michael Akinsulire

Some of film history’s most iconic works take place across one eventful day or night. Tummy Monster easily fits this model, taking place in one location over a night that goes from ordinary to extraordinary with alarming speed. Tattoo artist Tales (Lorn Macdonald) is just about to close up shop when he gets a call – can he fit in a famous pop star for a tattoo before shutting up for the night? He jumps at the chance, but then when he asks for a selfie the star, Tummy (Orlando Norman), decides to teach Tales a lesson. The two become locked in psychological warfare while Tummy’s handler Truth (Michael Akinsulire) waits outside and pressure mounts from Tales’ home life. 

We sat down at the Glasgow Film Festival with writer and director Ciaran Lyons and two of the three main actors – Lorn Macdonald and Michael Akinsulire – to discuss bringing Tummy Monster to life over a fast-paced five-day shoot and creating a cautionary fairytale for modern times.

The Interview with Tummy Monster director Ciaran Lyons and actors Lorn Macdonald and Michael Akinsulire

[Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Carmen Paddock: First, congratulations on the film. I had a lot of fun watching it and had no idea where it was going, so I was quite stressed throughout.

Ciaran Lyons: That’s good!

Carmen Paddock: I felt like there was a dedication from each character just to push the action to the next logical extreme, and at points I wonder how much further it could go. I know it’s set in Glasgow today. It has a character that very much is a Justin Bieber parallel. But the film really reminded me of those 19th century Russian novellas where an ordinary guy gets himself in a situation with someone else who seems ordinary, but might just be the devil in disguise. And then it goes from a place of reality to a place of almost supernatural unreality. Could you talk a bit about the story and development and if there was any other fiction you drew on?

Ciaran Lyons: I mean, I love Balzac, he’s the real tormentor of characters. And I don’t know, movie wise, the supernatural genre and stuff is always in there. So even if I’m writing something that’s real, it’s always going to have those notes. I’m a big believer in the value of fairytales. When I was thinking about creating this character of Tummy, part of that was trying to create a new fairytale archetype – like creating a new Rumpelstiltskin for the vaping age.

Ciaran Lyons: I love stories where people find themselves in a situation that they’ve never experienced before. This film creates a new frame of reference where someone could say, “Oh, this is being tormented by Tummy” about something else, because there is something quite specific to this. There’s something about the selfie experience, or doing shit that’s pointless so that someone else doesn’t think you’re an arsehole. I don’t necessarily think that was something people were grappling with 200 years ago to the same extent. So maybe it needs its own fairy tale.

Lorn Macdonald: There’s a bit of Greek tragedy in it, like when he wants to play with the humans that he’s created, Zeus has to go into the body of a man, that kind of thing. Like Tummy’s just kind of gone into this guy and decided that he’s going to torture these other guys at three o’clock in the morning.

Carmen Paddock: Why not?

Lorn Macdonald: We first got the script, it was 67 pages and there were some really bold ideas that Ciaran had written down. There was a lot to play with. So then as an actor, there’s so much fun to be had when you bring what you believe the character represents and where the story could go. But the fundamental themes are locked down. I felt like Ciaran is a director and a writer who knows what they want to say. So that gave me good confidence going into it.

On creating the character on the page versus on the screen for Tummy Monster

Carmen Paddock: That’s great. And I noticed there were script credits shared between Ciaran, Lorn, and Orlando Norman [who plays Tummy]. Was there a different process for creating the character on the page than creating them in front of the camera?

Lorn Macdonald: Yeah, I remember turning up for the first day of the shoot, and you know what you want your character to be – you’re bringing what you believe the character can be as well. There was room for the improv, which is why we were on the writing credits, because there were quite a lot of lines and things thrown in. But I remember seeing what Michael was doing with Truth and what Orlando [Norman] was doing with Tummy and going like, “oh, right, okay!”

Lorn Macdonald: There is that thing where you’re imagining what the characters could be on the page, but then when you see them in reality and they’re so much more and fuller and have all these other strands, t you then have to go like, “oh, so how does my character relate to the things in the script I know are there, and also how does my character relate to these things that I didn’t even know were in the script, but these actors are bringing?” So every day, every scene, every moment, you feel like these characters are living a little bit more than just what you’ve read on the page. It was quite an exciting experience.

On filming Tummy Monster

Carmen Paddock: It sounds like it. And it was a fast shoot, wasn’t it?

Ciaran Lyons: Yes, five days.

Carmen Paddock: Wow. You could do two of those shoots within the Glasgow Film Festival.

Ciaran Lyons: I don’t know if we actually physically could, but we could try [laughs]. I think it was very intense, but there was definitely something to shooting it in that very compressed time. Weirdly, I think it made us freer because we couldn’t stop to question ourselves. You rely on your instincts a lot. And there’s a weird thing, I think – when you practice using your instincts, I think they do get better. I think that’s what was happening in the shoot. I feel like the beginning of it was slightly more structured. And as we got into the camera work freed up, the performance became wilder. The need for instinct was a big part of it.

Lorn Macdonald: Yeah, I think if we had had a lot of money and a month to film it, I don’t think we would’ve got any better results than the intensity of five days. The whole point of this film is that it’s set over one night. And when you’re inside the place with no natural light coming in for those long shoots where you’re doing two takes, that kind of intensity lends itself to the process. Sometimes one take on certain things and Ciaran’s like, “Yep, that’s the one. Move on”, and then other ones it’s like, “Nope, we’re going to drill this, drill this, drill this/”

Lorn Macdonald: I’ve been describing my performance as a bit of a Nic Cage performance. I mean that in a way when you watch a Nic Cage performance, the man’s making bold decisions and some of them work and some of them don’t, but he’s exciting. I felt like with this, there wasn’t time to give the editor five different versions of the scene so they can build your performance for you. I’ve been in things where I’ve gone, “oh great, this editor’s great because I’ve given them loads of options and they’ve made my performance better than it ever was on the day.” With something like this, you’ve got to make those bold decisions.

Ciaran Lyons: Yeah, and there were some really quite strange decisions that you just go with. And you have the freedom to do that. There is one scene where there is a frankly bizarre editing decision, which I made while directing it, where Tales is essentially fighting back against Tummy.

Lorn Macdonald: Oh, and circling him.

Ciaran Lyons: He’s circling and he’s moving all over the place. And I made that decision while directing because I thought the priority here is to get movement in this scene. We cannot choreograph this to dialogue. So we just actually made the movement more extreme. Then you go with that decision. That’s not something that you would probably choose to do if you storyboarded it and you had the money to get it exactly right. And instead, you find this solution to a scene that needed dynamism and movement.

Lorn Macdonald: At that point, with that particular editing choice, it’s the first time in the film where Tales seems to be on top.

Ciaran Lyons: He becomes almost supernatural.

Lorn Macdonald: He becomes the supernatural character, he becomes the monster kind of thing. It’s short-lived, but I think this is what I’m talking about when I say if it’s extended filming, you don’t get those moments where limitations means that you just have to work a little bit harder. But the results are perhaps more interesting and more dynamic.

Ciaran Lyons: Certainly very specific. This is the outcome of a film that’s shot in five days and not every film is that. So this is what it is. It’s what you can do.

On Michael Akinsulire’s role in Tummy Monster

Carmen Paddock: Michael, you were kind of on the outside, a bit of a guardian of the underworld situation. Was that a different experience for you?

Michael Akinsulire: I started filming outside in the Mercedes first, so I didn’t quite have a rhythm yet. I started outside and then ended up coming in. So it gave me a different kind of feel from where I was coming from, a softer feel into a more knowing feel. And I guess the interesting part for me was just looking at the different dynamics within the relationship between Tummy and Tales and trying to see where I fit, where I fit in and how I could regulate the temperatures. So yeah, it was interesting.

On why all the characters have names starting with  T

Carmen Paddock: So I don’t know if there is an answer to this question, but why did all three characters have names starting with the T?

Ciaran Lyons: I think I sometimes have a bit of a dreamy process and I just trust certain instincts. There wasn’t a super rational reason for that. But I think there’s just a little bit of verbal tactility, which I look for. You’re looking to create these echoes which are kind of irrational. And there’s a few of them like Tales real name echoes Tummy, he’s Tim. There’s all these funny echoes throughout the film. And none of them really have real names.

Lorn Macdonald: So the film is kind of about identity and truth and being true to your identity, being a reflection of who you want the world to see you as, but also maybe who you should be showing the world you are. And three guys come in, none of them with their real names. All of them with these aliases that they have created or have been given is another thing to get past. If they all came in as John, Steve, and Harry, it wouldn’t have the same kind of mystery that all of them are keeping their cards close, and one by one, those cards are being exposed.

Tummy Monster is now playing at the Glasgow Film Festival.

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