DOP turned-director PJ Dillon and his producing team John Wallace and Alex Jones talk to Niamh Creely about their new Irish feature currently in cinemas and the scheme that funded it.
How did having a DOP’s visual sensibility affect your writing of the script?
PJ: Well, having shot a number of low-budget feature films, I would have had a fair idea of the pitfalls to avoid. There were certain rules that were laid down at the Catalyst Project: no special effects, no shooting at night, no X, no Y. But as I was sitting there I was thinking ‘that’s not really the case at all.’
John: Yes, we actually did everything we were told not to do. But we didn’t do it from a position of ignorance. We did it in the knowledge that what we were doing was achievable.
PJ: And when it came to the shoot, Ken Byrne was DOP, who I’ve worked with a lot over the years. We were both very conscious that we were a low-budget film shooting in winter and the look of the film was designed around that. I knew what our limitations would be and I knew what sort of opportunities that shooting in winter would present. Being a DOP, obviously you’re starting with an advantage there.
And would there be any particular scene in the film that you wrote with specific visuals in mind?
PJ: The burning caravan. But if that had been mooted at the Catalyst Project it would have been laughed out of the room.
Alex: People would have had seizures!
PJ: But we were lucky that we had the right production designer, Philip Murphy, who was very pragmatic. When we looked at it, it wasn’t going to cost us much.
PJ, you worked with Allen Leech before, on Deep Breaths. Both of the characters he plays have a similar menacing character…
PJ: [laughter] We really enjoyed working with Alan and when I was trying to think of an idea for the Catalyst Project that menacing character of his was in my mind. In fact, I pretty much wrote the first draft of the script with him in mind. We did some workshops with him after we were shortlisted and developed the character in that way.
Right. And was there a long waiting period after you were shortlisted?
PJ: I can’t remember exactly when we were shortlisted, but we were initially meant to shoot in April 2008. And then there were some issues, which hadn’t been sorted out between the Catalyst Project and the various unions.
John: Talks hadn’t reached a certain stage by the time we were due to shoot so…
Alex: We had to postpone.
PJ: We were due to shoot and a couple of weeks before we were actually going to kick off we had to stand down. And then because of all of our schedules and Alan’s schedule, the next available window for us to do it became January 2009. So there was a seven month hiatus.
John: I mean, I think it would have been a very different film.
PJ: Yes, definitely.
Alex: You know, just even the season….
So you wouldn’t have been shooting in winter? Did that mean rewrites?
Alex: Yes, we would have been shooting in spring. So it did have a qualitative change to the project. But there was only a small amount of rewriting. Not too much.
What did you shoot on?
PJ: We shot on red. And just developed it from there. Ken has an amazing eye.
Were there any particular scenes that caused you serious issues?
PJ: Not particularly, no. The only thing that caused us a little bit of trouble was all the low-loader car work. And on one of the days it was snowing until lunchtime – we just had to keep shooting. That was in the forest. So we just found parts of the forest where the snow hadn’t hit the ground yet!
Alex: What I will say about PJ is… we never went over.
PJ: I think there was one day we went over by half an hour and that was because we had a problem with a technical thing on the low loader. Every other day we finished early. It was just really good prep, you know. On something like that you don’t want to make the crew work overtime that you know you can’t pay. We were very conscious of looking after the crew. And actually, with the way the finance is structured with Catalyst, the crew and cast are your partners – if we make the sale, it’s split even.
Do you think that you were in the minority at the Catalyst Project, coming from the technical side of things?
PJ: I’d say so, yes. People who actively make an active living out of working in the film industry would have been the minority.
Alex: I thought there were quite a few writers there.
John: Which is a good thing. Because it’s very pragmatic, very ‘look, this is what you need’. Which writers may not be exposed to otherwise.
Was there anyone in particular who stood out for you as helpful?
PJ: Well there was a guy called Jan Fleischer, who is a script editor. He made a really good impression on us. And then later he came on board our project as a mentor. I never actually met him. But we had an ongoing phone and email correspondence over a couple of months. Lenny Abrahamson was also really helpful at the editing phase.
John: And it wasn’t just for us, it was for our crew as well. So our sound guy or our production designer, or whoever, could get mentorship as well.
Alex: We also got to attend a lot of Screen Training Ireland classes and seminars, budget stuff, scheduling, health and safety, marketing, which was great.
John: One of the main things about it as well was that everyone was paid the same rate and people got a chance to upgrade. We worked with a lot of people who were more than capable to take that step up and prove themselves brilliantly as a head of department.
From a point of view of funding then, how exactly did it work?
Well the Film Board, Screen Training Ireland, BAI, TV3 and Filmbase all contributed.
Alex: Each of the three projects got €275,000.
John: And apart from what Filmbase invested, we could also use their facilities, Screen Training Ireland the same. That’s a huge help. Stuff like Filmbase’s rehearsal rooms – those things add up. It’s a great resource to have.
So once you had the funding, then basically your job as producers was all done for you…
John: Hah! No, okay, it was great in that way. The finance was already there, we just had to do the paperwork and work out our budget. That meant that Alex and I could work closely with PJ in the casting, the locations, etc. On a lot of films, especially independent films, your time is taken up just closing the film.
PJ: Everybody is there because they want to be there and not because the money is big. They want to work with us, they like the script, they like the project. It’s the people behind the camera, really, like say Sean Griffin, our first ad, or Jessica Bermingham our production manager.
The project funded the three winning projects, but then there are also all the ones that nearly made it. His and Hers, Savage, Snap are just some of them and there are still more in the pipeline. It’s almost like it sparked a mini generation of films, the Catalyst generation. What’s it like being part of that?
PJ: Well. I am not aware that… [laughter]
Alex: We know a lot of the people involved. But it’s not like we meet for coffee every Friday!
John: No, but it is great. I actually worked on One Hundred Mornings and Savage, I did all those before Rewind. That was good for me just in terms of talking to Seamus Byrne and Katie Holly and Conor Barry and asking them, ‘what did you guys do here?’ And I am still in contact with everybody. I think it made me a better producer, being able to work on those films in a first ad role.
So do you think there should be another Catalyst Project?
John: Definitely, there should be another Catalyst Project.
Alex: Someone at one of the seminars said that part of the thing was to allow filmmakers the freedom to fail.
John: Yeah. It’s important to….
PJ: …to cut your teeth.
PJ: And to make mistakes in a less pressured environment than if it’s a purely commercial thing. It’s designed as a training scheme and that shouldn’t be forgotten, you know.