On Sunday, 20th November last, the IFI screened Basil Al-Rawi and Eamonn Gray’s new independent Irish feature Opus K in the intimate surroundings of Cinema 2 as part of the Ireland on Sunday series, a monthly showcase for new Irish films. This series is designed to provide Irish film-makers with an opportunity to screen their work in a unique atmosphere, with a view to gaining a general release. Opus K is the perfect example of what Ireland on Sunday is all about – the very definition of an independent film, this entirely self-financed work has been a labour of love for director Eamonn Gray and cinematographer Basil Al-Rawi, as well as their dedicated cast and crew, over the last two years.
The result of their efforts is a film that defies the constraints of a very modest budget with its rich, imaginative plotting and great visual panache. With its red-lit corridors and murky interiors, Opus K effectively conjures up a vision of a murky urban world, full of paranoia and dread. With definite thematic and visual nods to the paranoid American conspiracy thrillers of the ‘70s (e.g The Parallax View, Klute) coupled with an excellent soundtrack by Tommy Gray, the film expertly builds tension as the twisting plot unfolds towards an unexpectedly moving climax.
Put simply, Opus K does a hell of a lot with very little – Basil Al-Rawi and Eamonn Gray manage to squeeze maximum visual impact from their limited means to create a work which exhibits huge promise and genuine thematic ambition. After its enthusiastically received screening in the IFI, the two filmmakers were joined by the IFI’s Alicia McGivern for a Q&A session to talk about their cinematic influences, the difficulties of working on a tight budget and… er… how to order exotic moths online…..
Q. (Alicia McGivern) – So, thanks guys for showing your film Opus K here today – an extremely atmospheric, haunting mystery thriller. This is in fact its third screening so far, could you tell us a little about its journey here?
A. (Eamonn Gray – director) – Yes, the premiere was back in July at the Galway Film Fleadh where we were entered in the Wild Card section, which is devoted to independent film-makers trying to get their films out there…so Galway was a great platform for us to launch the film, Galway being such a prestigious festival. After that we were at Darklight, also a great experience as its another festival of grass-roots film-making in Ireland. Again, after Galway we were in the wilderness a little bit…we tried for a number of bigger festivals which was ambitious for a film of this scale…which didn’t work out but we said we’d give it a shot anyway. So when we were invited to screen our film here, we were over the moon to have such a great location to screen the film. So its been a long road to get here – the editing process has taken quite a while – but today finally feels like a point of completion.
Q. So you started shooting in April ‘09, picked up again in October ‘09 and ended up finishing in April ‘10….
A. (Eamonn) Yes, the original shoot was about a week and a half…which was quite ambitious for a 100 page script. But as you shoot, more scenes tend to go or get merged together…in terms of scheduling it was literally just me and Baz trying to co-ordinate everyone, you don’t realise how difficult it is until you try to get 20 people in one place at the one time, especially every day for two weeks.
Q. From what I’ve heard a huge element of the film as far as you’re concerned was the generosity of others and the co-operative effect of all of that…
A. (Eamonn) Absolutely, it all started with just me and Baz having a few beers on a Saturday night and just talking about what we were going to do after film school. We both thought that making films was something you did down the road, after you’ve paid your dues, but eventually we just thought “Why don’t we make a film ourselves?”. Technology has come so far now that its not beyond the limits of what you can do, its just a matter of getting the right people around you. So it was literally a case of cold-calling people, scanning credits and trying to track people down. Most people are very contactable these days, with the Internet, and fortunately there’s a great wealth of acting talent in Ireland today and we found some absolutely fantastic people who were willing to get stuck right in. They understood what was expected of them and that they would not be rewarded financially, but that we would support as best we could in terms of feeding them and making sure they didn’t have to work too long hours. The crew were also willing to get stuck in, everyone had a smile on their faces throughout and the whole thing was a fantastic experience.
Q. We should mention the moth at this point….[ one of the film’s most striking images is of a moth fluttering around a light-bulb.]
A. (Basil Al-Rawi – cinematographer) Yes, the moth arrived in the post…you can order moths online now. We just Googled moths and ordered one, when it arrived it had hatched in the box and was scratching around inside the parcel, so the postman must have been freaked out…..but directing the moth was another story!
(Eamonn) Yeah, as you can see, in terms of shooting, all the stuff that looks complicated on screen is actually quite easy to block out and film…but that one shot of the moth flying around the light-bulb; me and Baz took a whole day trying to get it right but couldn’t get the moth to co-operate! So we ended up getting a friend of ours who’s good with computers and animation to get some footage of a moth flying and just cut that out and rotoscope it onto the shot. It ended up taking him five minutes….after me and Baz took weeks planning the shot…
Q. So did the moth survive?
A. Eamonn : Well… you know, moths don’t live very long anyway!
Q. Baz, let’s talk about the cinematography of the film- it looks amazing, and you’ve been talking about Gordon Willis and his use of light and shadow in his ‘70’s films. You’ve referenced his The Parallax View and other paranoid thrillers of the ‘70’s as an influence. Could you talk to us a bit about that?
A. (Baz) Well, me and Eamonn both loved those films of the ‘70’s, particularly Pakula’s trilogy (Klute, The Parallax View, All the President’s Men). I suppose Willis’ approach to cinematography was to avoid what he called “light sandwiches”, having two sources of light on either side of a character. We felt that our script suited an approach like this, with shadows and darkness helping to create a mood. We watched a lot of other films too, like Blade Runner, to see how people re-create these dark urban worlds, and how they used shadows to create a sinister mood. A lot of it is about doing more with less.
Q. There’s a lot of Edward Hopper there too, particularly in those greens in your film…
A. (Baz) Yes, we looked at a lot of Hopper just for the colour patterns, and how they re-created that feeling of the alienation of the urban world.
(Eamonn) We also got lucky quite often with things like green becoming a pre-dominant colour, it was just a colour that kept popping up in the different locations. A lot of the time you’re crossing your fingers in terms of how your locations will look, so we got lucky with those green colours…there was that sense of serendipity quite often, which is something which helps to spur you on.
Q. Did you change the ending during production?
A. (Eamonn) Yes, the ending has been in a constant state of flux since we started, and through the different stages of production. Again, it was another part of the learning process for us, it was our first feature and from our first script. It wasn’t an ideal way of doing it…but all the same we were learning all the time. Fortunately, we were able to get it in the can initially and so we were able to come back and re-cut….and really we learned that editing is another form of writing.
Q. What was the budget of the film?
A. (Eamonn) Well, we got a loan from the bank of about 10,000Euro, and camera and other costs came to between 6 and 7,000Euro…so overall about 16,000Euro.
Q. I have a quote from you in relation to your method of film-making where you say that you “share an innate discomfort with any notion of practical wisdom....
A. ( Baz ) Yes, the shooting process involved a lot of late nights and we were flying by the seat of our pants a lot of the time. There was a lot of location shooting and we would be going from location to checking on how our sets were being built…our set builder had a depth of practical wisdom that we didn’t have. Sometimes when things got difficult, against our better judgment we just went ahead with a willing blindness….you will always run into trouble on a shoot and sometimes your scheduling goes out the window. But we just had a lot of optimism and just got on with it thanks to all the co-operation from everyone.
Q. Can you just tell us about the soundtrack, that was your brother wasn’t it?
A. (Eamonn) Yeah, that was Tommy my brother…Tommy did a great job, he’s a graduate of the Jazz Academy out in Newtownpark Avenue in Blackrock. Obviously jazz comes first but they get a very solid grounding in classical composition also….so he was a fantastic addition. Tommy’s also a film buff so he’s been able to draw on his knowledge of film composers throughout film history in composing the soundtrack. The difference is huge…when you watch the film dry with no music and then watch it with the soundtrack, the soundtrack really adds so much to the atmosphere of the film.
Q. So will you be collaborating again?
A. (Eamonn) Yes, absolutely…we have our production company, Triptych films, and we have a number of projects in development….its really a case of which one rises to the top. It also depends, of course, on what we will be able to afford and seeing if we can get people on board. It is great to close the book on Opus K and to move on. It’s great to come to a conclusion with this, but one thing I’ll say is that if you’re planning on making a film independently, be prepared to feel very bad about yourselves. The financial debt is one thing, money can be paid back….but the moral debt you owe to everyone who helps you, that’s something you can never pay back!