Six things I've learned while making the Film

John Healy

Filmmaker Paul Duane has made a documentary about the colourful life of author John Healy (The Grass Arena), which will show next Tuesday on RTÉ One. Paul shared some of the lessons learned during making the film.

Six things I have learned while making the Film:


I started filming four years ago, out of sheer fascination for John Healy’s almost unbelievable life story. I started out as a conventional director, with a full crew. But after that, every time we shot we seemed to have less money. So eventually we were down to two people, and I was operating the camera, despite my massive discomfort with the idea of having to take responsibility for arcane things like white balances and ND filters. Then, as always seems to happen, just when you think you can’t shoot with fewer people and less money, you end up shooting with fewer people and less money. I ended up doing camera AND sound for the last few days of the shoot. And that was when I finally cracked it and got the best material I ever got, the stuff I’d been trying to get all along. The material I got with the crew was good, don’t get me wrong. But if you want to get to the truth about your characters, if you want to see what they’re like when there’s not a bunch of strangers hanging around farting and scratching themselves in their living-room, try filming as a one-man band.


We started shooting in 2007 thanks to the immense generosity and vision of Adrian Lynch, of Animo Productions, who allowed me a crew for a day to shoot something that we might be able to use to raise some production funding. I cut a promo – a very bad one, more about that later – and we failed completely to get any funding from anybody, anywhere. A while later, after I’d managed to convince the Irish Film Board to give me enough development funding to shoot more material and cut a better promo. I decided that the best way forward was to go for broke and use the development money to shoot as much of the film as I could. So, digging into my own pocket to supplement it when cash started to run low, I shot for as long as I could and got 75% of the documentary in the can before there was a penny of production funding in place. Later, this turned out to be a real plus when it turned out that we were going to be strapped for cash when it came to finishing the film – I’d shot so much, we were able to fill in the blanks with relative ease.


The first promo I cut was like a mini-epic, covering as much of John Healy’s life as I could in five minutes. It was comprehensive, it was packed with images and stories, it was dull and it gave away far too much of the story. At the excellent promo workshop run by the Stranger Than Fiction Festival, critiques boiled down to ‘Why would I need to see the film? I know what happens now.’ So I cut another, completely different promo that was designed to make whoever watched it ask me questions like ‘What happens next?’ and I took this to HotDocs and the Sheffield DocFest, where it helped me to land heavyweight co-producers in the UK and USA. Watching a lot of other promos for a lot of other documentaries really helped. Some of them are better than movies.


As I said, I ended up with two heavyweight co-producers, Oscar-winners, and that was a tremendous ego-boost at the time. Suddenly we were talking about serious budgets for the film, UK commissioning editors were taking our calls, and festivals looked upon us with lustful eyes. Then it became apparent that the way I felt about the film and the way the co-producers felt were widely divergent. When it comes right down to it, every film is really produced by one person or team, and co-producers are sort of loosely clipped on, until contracts and funding arrangements marry them in perpetuity. If those funding arrangements fail to come off, and the momentum you’re looking for doesn’t suddenly lift your project into the stratosphere, don’t be surprised if the co-pros quietly drop away in the night and you’re back to your original core team, and a rather reduced set of production circumstances. If the situation was reversed, and you were the last one to get to the party, you’d be doing the same thing.


Your footage can be great, or it can be – it usually is – a very mixed bag. You will be very very close to it, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent. The most important accomplice you can get at the final stage of production (and more so than in drama, the edit is where documentaries are made or unmade) is an editor who brings fresh eyes to the material and helps you see it as an audience might, rather than through your own exhausted, besotted eyes. In this case Colm O’Brien took on the project at a stage where I had almost lost faith in the idea that we even had a film at all here, and helped find a way through the extraordinary maze of John Healy’s complicated, sometimes bewildering life. A good editor is not necessarily the same thing as an editor who does what you ask them to do, in fact more often than not you’ll end up fighting doggedly to keep a scene you’re in love with, only to agree with them in the end that your beloved darling is best filed in the Deleted Scenes bin. That’s what DVD releases are for, they give you hope that someday, somebody will watch all your dear deleted darlings.


I’m on Twitter, I hate Facebook, but both of them have their place in the struggle to get your film made and seen. The film has a (poorly maintained and rather neglected) Facebook page which will hopefully at some point provide a nexus for people who like John Healy and his work to find out more about screenings and other useful information. But it was due to Twitter that I ended up, at the ragged end of production on the film when money and enthusiasm were just about gone, discovering a London-based producer of great experience, Astrid Edwards, who was also a huge fan of The Grass Arena, John Healy’s unique and extraordinary memoir. She offered to help me in whatever way she could, so for our final London shoot I had a very overqualified ‘production manager’ helping me out for peanuts. Other admirers of John Healy found their way to me via the internet and will hopefully prove useful as we build an audience for the documentary. But you have to engage with the world of social networking in a non-cynical way, as nothing is more obvious than a hit-and-run artist trying to carpet-bomb the Net with info about their latest project, without taking the time to engage with the people they’re theoretically addressing. That gets nobody anywhere. You might as well push leaflets through random strangers’ front doors.

John Healy: You Have Been Warned is on RTÉ1 at 10.15 pm on Tuesday, 11th January 2011.


One Reply to “Six things I've learned while making the Film”

  1. Great article! It really sums up how hard it is to get a low budget film made – I’ve only produced a short and that was hard enough! Much respect for getting the doc made and looking forward to seeing it – will it get a theatrical release?

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