Interview: Terry McMahon and Emmett Scanlan on Irish film ‘Charlie Casanova’, released in cinemas this week

With Charlie Casanova being released in cinemas this Friday, David Neary caught up with the film’s writer and director, Terry McMahon, and actor Emmett Scanlan to find out more about the ruling class sociopath who uses a deck of playing cards to determine his fate.

How long was this a script before you managed to go DIY on it?

McMahon: I had an idea for a character that I saw more and more prevalent in Irish society and when the Film Board set up the Catalyst project, which was a great idea and produced some marvelous films, I wanted to write a punk film, which was abrasive and ugly and rage-fuelled that took standard structure and form and turned it into something even more extreme than expected. I was working with a director and a producer and it wasn’t working out, so I pulled the plug on it and went away and worked on it myself. I think that was four years ago.

Charlie is, as you say, a rage-fuelled character and it is an angry film. How much of this anger is your anger.

McMahon: It starts with shame – shame that I’m a such a eunuch in a whorehouse when it comes to the political process and when it comes to my children’s future and watching that future being flushed down the toilet by a tiny group of controlling class freaks. So Charlie’s rage is born out of self-interest and self-loathing and you see that manifested in the language of deceit and actions of deceit. He was supposed to be grotesque when I wrote him. I didn’t know he was going to become a dark prophecy as now that mentality has become government policy. And you watch how they treat the working class – how they are all disenfranchised. So Charlie’s rage is born out of self-interest and my exploration of Charlie and reason for creating Charlie is born out of shame.

The only time Charlie is sincere is when he’s being cowardly. Every other time he’s being fake – fake emotions, fake dialogue, fake engagement. He’s a bad actor… And it takes an extraordinary actor to play that. He’s a liar, a liar who’s so obviously one-dimensional, yet none of us call him on it. And you see with our political leaders it’s the exact same principals applying and none of us call them on it.

Emmet, how much of that anger Terry talks about is channeled in your performance?

Scanlan: It’s a lot different for me. Terry’s a lot more poetic and it’s a lot deeper for him. I understand what it represents and how it provokes people and what makes it so controversial and I’m really proud to be part of something like that. But as for channeling any anger in the movie, it’s just me playing Charlie Casanova. You can’t come at it from that point of view. I can only come at it from understanding… and acceptance.

What stage did you join the production?

Scanlan: Well I know Terry for many years. He had written a script called Dancehall Bitch, which was the best script I’d ever read – it’s absolute genius. And I wanted to be part of it. A mutual friend of ours, a theatre director, wanted to put it on. No one else would go near it. No one had the balls to take it on. It frightened a lot of people. We basically took the screenplay and turned it into a stageplay and performed it. The first time Terry arrived was the first time I met him and we gave each other a great big hug and thus spawned a great fortuitous, debaucherous, productive relationship and friendship. Then he said he was doing Charlie Casanova. I’d just come back from LA after doing a show over there for about a year and a half and told him I wanted to be involved at any level because I knew his writing was so great. So he cast me in a small part and then I stood in for the character Charlie Casanova for the screen test in the auditions and Terry told me that he realized that I was probably going to be Charlie Casanova and that he was probably going to regret it for the rest of his life. And I arrogantly and naively said ‘I’m all over that shit’, but little did I know the beast I was going to be sleeping with. And I immediately immersed myself into the role and started playing the Charlie Casanova game with the deck of cards two weeks before shooting. I went around the streets of Dublin and started playing the game – and it took me to some dark, seedy areas in my mind and pushed me to limits I didn’t even know I had. And Charlie was born in my fingers and he’s still there today. And I’ve a great love and affection for it and for working with this man Terry here.

Obviously people will have seen you before in Hollyoaks but this is a hugely different beast.

Scanlan: My character in Hollyoaks  pushes limits and I give Terry and Charlie massive credit for allowing me to do that. Prior to playing Charlie, there was an arrogance and a naivety that I had about acting and I realized that I was totally unequipped for it even though there was nothing I would have rather done with my life. It taught me a lot about acting. And I took that into Hollyoaks and I made this new character, Brendan Brady, quite dark – the difference is he has more of a moral compass than Charlie, who’s way more dangerous but far more cowardly – it’s a different breed of animal. It’s a massive satisfaction doing a movie. It’s 11 days – you have a beginning, middle and end. Whereas in soap it evolves day by day with storylines changing. But I’ve been so fortuitous since January 2010 doing Charlie Casanova and then Brendan Brady in Hollyoaks in May.

The film is mostly set at night…

McMahon: Yeh. We had expositional shots but when I was editing it I thought, when you’re in a nightmare you’re not aware of the world you’re in. I knew Charlie Casanova was going to be divisive and that some people would hate it – but I didn’t realize the extremities of response on both sides was going to be so profound. But I knew that I wanted to create a nightmarish world where you were constantly unaware of where you were – every time you thought you knew where you were you would suddenly be subverted. So we cut any of the expositional shots out, including much of the daytime shots because you want to be forced into the mind of the character – but I didn’t want to create empathy with the character or tag him with him with a series of prerequisite humanities that allow us to distance ourselves from him by pretending we’re not him. It’s a big gamble – for some people it hasn’t paid off at all; for other people who become incredibly passionate advocates of it, it makes perfect sense.

As you say the audience response has been dramatically divided. What’s your reaction to the reaction?

McMahon: It was always intended to be divisive film. Now I’m not pretending that doesn’t affect us when we see audiences spitting bile but what is equally compelling to me is that the people who are incredibly passionate advocates of the film adore it for the exact same reasons that people despise it. All we were trying to do with Charlie Casanova was make a divisive, provocative, visceral film. To some we’ve succeeded; to others we’ve failed. But I think… I hope… that in the long term it’ll be viewed with the objectivity of its time and place and context, with the realisation that at least someone in this country was trying to make a film that wasn’t committee driven, consensus driven and was about the time we live in.

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