Ross Whitaker talks to Brendan Muldowney and Conor Barry about their low-budget feature Savage.
I don’t mind telling you that I was a little worried when Film Ireland asked me to put the spotlight on Savage, the debut feature film by Brendan Muldowney (director) and Conor Barry (producer).
With low-budget Irish films you just never know what you’re going to get and I hadn’t seen the film yet. In fact, nobody had seen it. Ever. So I was concerned that I was going to end up interviewing the makers of Savage without having enjoyed their film…
They sent me over a screener. I watched it. I loved it. I was the first person to watch the final cut of the film and now the makers of Savage have a 100% record. One viewer, one fan.
Savage is an exploration of violence and masculinity – a story of obsession and revenge, as a man tries to come to terms with a brutal, random attack and its consequences.
Darren Healy plays Paul Graynor, a shy, mild-mannered press photographer who is set upon in an alley by two lads on his way home from a night out. In a hugely powerful scene, Muldowney brilliantly captures the intimidating ‘Look at me! Look at me! Watcha lookin’ at?’ patter that will be all too familiar to anyone who has been caught in that frightening position. It’s an uncomfortable, harrowing scene that will have you squirming in your seat and the gentlemen in the audience crossing their legs. But you won’t be able to look away.
The violent assault leaves Graynor a shadow of his former self, at first cowed but later very, very angry. Muldowney is clearly influenced by films like Taxi Driver and Straw Dogs in depicting a man who is pushed to the edge and contemplates taking the next step.
The film takes you on a visceral, violent journey that is utterly compelling. It’s not for the faint-hearted but then it’s not aimed at the faint-hearted. Indeed, probably the most pleasing element of this film is its unflinching desire to not let the audience off the hook. It is uncompromising but all the better for that. It puts the audience in an uncomfortable but fascinating place, leaving you wondering whether revenge could be acceptable if the initial crime is heinous enough.
‘I wanted to make people feel something and then they could make up their own minds about it,’ says Muldowney. ‘I wanted the audience to understand this character and to almost feel sorry for him despite the violent acts that he carries out. It’s a bit twisted. The whole point was to put the audience in this grey area, so they could see both sides of the story. I was happy to not be didactic.’
While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact budget of Savage, it seems to me that they received less cash in hand than is often wasted on an hour of prime-time reality TV. They had just four weeks to shoot the film and ended up with less coverage than they would have liked, though I must admit that I didn’t notice. Barry and Muldowney are also quick to point out that their low budget brought benefits as well as drawbacks.
‘If we’d had more money, I probably would have used CGI to help me depict the violence and bloodshed in certain scenes but in hindsight it became more about performance and using the length of the scene to get me there. I think it works just as well and that it’s just as disturbing and if we’d been more explicit it might not have been as good,’ says Muldowney. Barry adds a crucial point, ‘the other thing about low-budget filmmaking is that it gave us the freedom to make the film we wanted to make.’
Barry and Muldowney originally aimed to make Savage as part of the Catalyst Project – BSÉ/IFB, BCI, TVt3 and Arts Council scheme that aimed to get three low-budget features made – but when it wasn’t picked as one of the final projects, they decided to make it anyway.
‘We didn’t get Catalyst but we had put so much work into it at that point, it reinforced the fact that we really wanted to make it,’ explains Barry. ‘Funnily enough, all of the work you put into trying to get a Catalyst application together, all of the encouragement and meetings and so on bring you on the road towards making your film. It all became a weird, natural progression towards achieving funding for Savage.’
They make no secret of their gratitude to BSÉ/IFB, who strongly backed the project, ‘they put together the model that allowed us to get the film made,’ says Barry. And they commend Filmbase, which was also very supportive. In addition, the team raised money outside of the normal channels by sending an investment proposal to family, friends and, well, everyone they could. It worked.
It’s quite remarkable what they’ve achieved with the budget they accumulated and there are films out there with ten times the budget that don’t look half as good. Using the RED ONE, cinematographers Michael O’Donovan and Tom Comerford have created a stark, monochrome Dublin that is gritty without appearing in any way cheap. Muldowney is clearly adept at using sound and it is employed to great effect throughout the film and, in particular, to build the internal journey of Graynor.
It’s a tribute to the BSÉ/IFB ‘can do’ attitude that so many small, high-quality films are making their way to audiences. But the flipside is that there is increasing competition for berths at festivals even within Ireland. The makers of Savage hope to debut the film at Galway and take it from there.
Beyond Savage, Barry and Muldowney have two more films loaded up and ready to go and they’re just waiting to finalise funding before pulling the trigger. I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing what they do next.