A Response to Sounding Off: Making Irish films that people want to watch: my thoughts on Mark O’Connor’s manifesto

Screenwriter and producer Eilis Mernagh responds to Mark O’Connor’s Sounding Off article: ‘The New Wave, The Fís And The Rage’, which featured in Film Ireland magazine Issue 142 Autumn 2012

Mark O’Connor, the writer and director of the low-budget feature film Stalker, read this manifesto out at the Fleadh, before a screening of Stalker.
I like the idea of someone putting themselves out there and bothering to write up a well thought-out manifesto. There’s something brave and maverick-ish about this. Vive La Revolution and all that! I like even more the fact that he had the balls to stand up and deliver it in public (it’s also printed in this month’s Film Ireland magazine btw).However, I do disagree with him on a bunch of points. Actually quite a lot of points.

I do agree that we are experiencing a bit of an “Irish New Wave” and that there’s a lot of interesting stuff being made. I also agree with him that Charlie Casanova has an “astonishingly powerful cinematic voice” and is one of the most intriguing pieces of work ever made in Ireland. And on a no-budget at that. But…

He goes on to say that “We have for too long focused on perfecting the script when in fact some of the finest work in this country, such as ‘Tin Can Man’ and ‘Pavee Lackeen’, came about through a uniquely personal way of working. These films show that the logic of film can work in a very different way than a rigidly plotted out story on paper.”

This is where my heart starts to sink. Like most writers, I believe that starting a film without a properly worked-out script (not necessarily rigidly plotted, there has to be room for manoeuvre) is like starting to build a house with no clear blueprints. What do you think the final product will look like? If the builder is a complete genius and manages to make it work, it will still be great. If he’s an average Joe, well…

When this kind of point comes up, people always mention Mike Leigh. Yes, Mike Leigh can start with nothing more than an idea and improvise a whole film. But Mike Leigh IS a complete God at what he does. Most directors are not Gods (most writers aren’t either, for the record).

But there’s more.

“Unlike the ‘Auteur’ or ‘Shreiber’ theories favouring either the director or the writer as the true author of a film, the ‘Fís’ Theory holds that a true singular voice can only be attained when the director is also the writer. If the director does not write it then they must rewrite it and reinterpret it into their own vision”.

This reminds me of when I went to a screening of “Our Wonderful Home” by Ivan Kavanagh at JDIFF a few years ago. Following a silence during which you could smell the depression off the audience, a woman got up during the Q&A. She asked Ivan Kavanagh (rather pointedly) whether he thought it had been a good idea to write, direct and edit the film himself. She was heavily hinting that it might have been better to get another perspective.

For me, and I accept that this is not everyone’s view, film is a collaborative medium that relies heavily on a bunch of creative people working together. I write a script, a director directs the movie, someone else does the costumes, someone lights the set, etc etc. I have zero interest in directing and if a director has no interest in writing that should be okay.

Sidney Lumet wrote a brilliant book on making films where he dismissed as ”’auteur’ nonsense” the notion that the director is the sole stylistic voice on a film, and he said he went out of his way to give credit to everyone from script girl to star. He discusses how he worked heavily with the writers on each of his films and always put story first. In other words, he respected the talent of those he worked with and got the most out of it.

Just to be clear, I’m not a writer who always thinks the director is out to mess with my script or who would resent changes being made along the way. I’d think it was strange if compromises didn’t have to be made, or if other viewpoints weren’t taken into consideration. But it’s a rare person who is just as excellent at writing as they are at directing. And I feel that a lot of people are out there doing both not because they can do both well, but because they don’t want to compromise “their own vision”.

If the only way a singular voice can be kept is if the director writes/rewrites the script where, then, does that leave a. directors who can’t write (should they just write shoddy scripts and shoot them? And b. what about writers who don’t want to direct?

That brings me to Charlie Casanova. I’m glad I watched it and I’m glad it was made. It looks fantastic and is a credit to its production designer and cinematographer. It raises great questions about class and about what the ruling class in the last administration were allowed to get away with – what they’re still getting away with.

I just wish Terry McMahon had let someone take a red pen to a script that was indulgent and wearyingly up its own arse (or up its own vagina in the case of the scene where Leigh Arnold inserts a tampon in front of Charlie). This is a film that is so “incendiary”, it thinks there’s something shocking about an act that half the population do many times a day for a whole week out of every month. Are tampons now sexy? Will Ireland now be full of panting men in front of bathroom doors, whispering “Show me the Tampax, baby!” Will Terry’s next film show a smear exam? My tongue is leaving my cheek now.

Apparently, CC is a “Protest film” and “the protest film is not conceived for the market. They are emotionally reactive, born out of necessity and a political and social consciousness”. 

I don’t know – and I haven’t been able to find out – whether Charlie made any money, whether it made a profit or whether it even broke even? No one got paid, and I assume Terry put a fair bit of moolah in himself. Either way, should films not be conceived – at least to some extent – “for the market?”

I’m thinking of an Irish person at home on Saturday night, who wants to go and see a film. First of all, he or she is likely to dismiss an Irish film as an option – even if there is one available to watch in their local cinema. Let’s be honest about this. Irish people tend to think Irish films are shit

And why is this? There are a lot of possible reasons – lack of proper distribution, poor development processes, lack of money, but I think the biggest problem is that the films are not, as a general rule, entertaining. I think the average person, who’s had a hard week at work and just wants to be gripped/made cry or made laugh for two hours, is not going to pay to see what may well be what a friend of mine likes to call a “tap-dripper”.

In case you think I’m saying that all films need to be Michael Bay-like (perish the thought), Mississippi Burning is a highly entertaining film as well as being powerful and informative. So is Medium Cool. So is an excellent Palestinian film called Amreeka. I remember watching the TV documentary drama “Who Bombed Birmingham” when I was very young and it’s stayed with me, scene by scene, ever since. It was so well written and well presented that it took me by the throat when I saw it.

But film is a medium that is designed for people to watch, preferably en masse, in a darkened cinema. I believe – and this is my manifesto if you like – that we need to think about the end user. The guy or girl paying for a ticket to watch something that we have created. We owe it to the audience to come up with something great, something that will leave them wondering, or laughing, or crying. And yes, thinking.

I watched two trailers for Irish movies today that (hopefully) will do those things. Two very different films, too – Citadel and Grabbers. I’m willing to bet that both of them will make money AND leave the audiences feeling like they got their monies worth.

I agree wholeheartedly with Mark on this last point – and I’d like to thank him for writing a manifesto that will encourage debate and hopefully lead to some great films being made. Because we think we can agree that we all want that.

“We need to build our indigenous film industry by making it about ourselves instead of trying to replicate the foreign model. For this movement to reach its full potential we need to promote Irish cinema as an important part of our culture and bring this new wave more into the mindset of Irish audiences. We need better models for the distribution of Irish film and we need our television stations to show more support for the industry. We should not be looking to work within a hierarchy but in a collaborative environment”  

Eilis Mernagh


You can read Mark’s original Sounding Off article The New Wave, The Fís And The Rage here

If you would like to respond to this article or feel strongly about something and would like to kick off your own topic, please email steven@filmbase.ie


12 Replies to “A Response to Sounding Off: Making Irish films that people want to watch: my thoughts on Mark O’Connor’s manifesto”

  1. Another screenwriter in Film Ireland moaning about the lack of work in this country. Badly written too. Then she mentions two new horror films which shows the level she’s working at. Nothing O’Connor said is new, it was said in France back in the 1950s. Yet Ms Mernagh can’t tell the difference between arthouse/personal filmmmaking and Saturday night multiplex entertainment? No wonder she can’t find work.

  2. I have to disagree with Fiachra (and can I say, what a spiteful little comment?! Is it necessary to get personal; could your argument not speak for itself?)

    I think this is a great piece and well put. If Ireland is to compete on an international level then it needs to make films of an international standard – and yes, crowd pleasers. The fact that a movie makes money does not detract from it’s cultural value. The fact that a movie is entertaining does not detract from it’s cultural value.

    There is a chasm in Ireland between what is seen as a ‘film’ and what is seen as a ‘movie’. And I know which I’d rather see of an evening.

  3. Cheers Niall. The magazine is called FILM Ireland. If she wants to write MOVIES then stay in Hollywood. Plenty of Irish screenwriters got their chance back in the 2000s but didn’t deliver. Now the directors have taken over to make more personal stuff using cheap technologies. The only problem with O’Connor’s article is that someone should have written it 20 years back.

  4. Fiachra, you are hilarious. On the thread to Mark O’Connor’s article your initial response is to dismiss it completely, now you’re saying it should have been written 20 years ago! I won’t argue anymore with you. Anybody interested can check all your posts on both threads and see the raging inconsistencies between all of them.

  5. Glad you’re enjoying my posts. I dismissed his article because he’s saying nothing new. My point on it being better written back in 1992 is because we could have avoided all those terrible Irish MOVIES made by director/screenwriter teams which bombed both commercially and critically. Now at least our directors’ (writing their own script) FILMS are doing well critically.

  6. This is a well reasoned response to An Tonn Nua. The problem with Irish films has not been that they are too tightly-scripted, what a risible notion. It is that more often than not, the directors and all the other talent on set are struggling to compensate for weak, lame scripts. Irish films tend to have slack stories that don’t connect with audiences. We need better stories and better crafted scripts, not more personal visions. The success stories of Irish films are written by people who have dedicated themselves to rewriting and didn’t start shooting till the script was really good. And recognisably a story. Adam and Paul is a good example of this, as is As If I Am Not There and I Went Down and Saltwater.

  7. Not a bad article. Agree with some of it. But I do think that, as a writer, if you’re going to respond critically to another writers work you should try and at least get the point. The female characters in Charlie Casanova are one dimentional for a reason. There job is to look good, smile, support and perform for the masters of the universe (the men) even while doing the most functionary of tasks like inserting a tampon. Even if they are going through there own personal hell. This is there position in the group. Nothing to do with shock.

  8. Mary, unfortunately a lot of past Irish movies have been tightly scripted resulting in stuff closer to TV than cinema. If these directors struggled on set with a lame script then they have little talent. The idea that the story comes first, then the script, then the director has resulted in some awful Irish movies over the years. That works fine in Hollywood but not here. There are other modes of filmmaking which thanks to Mr Perry our directors are finally discovering. It’s time our unemployed screenwriters stopped complaining and accepted this.

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