My Brothers is released in cinemas on Friday August 17th 2012. Amanda Spencer talked to Paul Fraser about his feature directorial debut before its Irish premiere at the 2010 Galway Film Fleadh. This article originally appeared in Film Ireland 133 Summer 2010.
Fraser’s first big screen collaboration, 24/7, saw a lifelong friendship and creative collaboration with Shane Meadows reach a wider audience. Since then, continued collaborations show the writer/director display a love of, and contribution to, cinema that is character-led, choice-driven and hinged on small scale adventures that are still somehow epic.
Fraser deals in heart. His writing credits include, A Room for Romeo Brass, Somers Town, Dead Man’s Shoes, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands and Damien O’Donnell’s Heartlands. Films that get right into their characters, characters whose lives are lived in unspectacular surrounds, with few outlets. The themes are rich and universal and Fraser’s tales travel. This time around, and for his feature directorial debut, they’ve come to Ireland.
My Brothers is a road trip embarked on by three brothers to replace their ailing father’s treasured broken watch. Filmed in Cork in November/December 2009, it was penned by young Irish writer, Will Collins [read Will Collins’ Irish Playwrights and Screenwriters Guild article also from Film Ireland issue 133 here]. Fraser loves to write. For that reason, he had always assumed his first feature would be self-penned. However, in meeting Will, he found a script that fitted his style, a young writer he wanted to champion and a feature he wanted to direct.
Amanda Spencer: How did things go at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival?
Paul Fraser: Well, we premiered in Tribeca. We finished the film the week before and with the volcanic ash in the mix, Rebecca O’Flanagan and Rob Walpole, the producers, had to go the scenic route to NYC to deliver the film. We got some good reviews and great feedback. Yeah, it went down really well and we all eventually got out there, so that was great. It’ll go on a journey of its own now, around to different festivals. I’d love to see it released around autumn.
What started you on the road to writing and directing?
Shane Meadows and I saw Mean Streets one weekend and then we went to a petrol station where you could hire these old cameras that had the vhs cassettes in them. It was the first time I’d ever picked up a camera and we just did silly little sketches and watched them back and laughed our heads off.
Did you have an educational background in film?
I spent two years in bed with a back problem when I was a little boy, but I had really good home tuition. My English teacher just made me write stories. He’d send me a brief, I’d write the story and that was my English education for about a year and a half. When I finished school, I went to business school for four weeks. I then quit that, because it was awful. I got a call from a friend who was doing a performing arts course. They needed help lighting a show. So I went in to help out, and I was watching everyone pretending to be trees, thinking, ‘what a load of nonsense.’ But actually, that’s where I started to write. Then I went on and did a contemporary art degree, and I was writing one-man shows and monologues that I could improvise around because I performed them myself.
When was your big break, and did you see it coming?
At the same time, I was writing little shorts with Shane and we got interest from Palace Pictures/Scala Productions (Stephen Woolley, Nik Powell, Imogen West). They’d seen a short film we’d made called Where’s the Money, Ronnie? and offered us money to make a proper short. We said ‘no,’ though. We wanted to make a feature. The idea we had at that time was for 24/7. So, they paid for us to go and write in a cottage in Wales. After five days, we sent them 200 pages and thought, ‘That was easy.’ They sent us back a list of notes and that’s where my proper education began, I guess. It allowed me to train to be a screenwriter on the job.
Did you go on the job with directors on the screenplays you’ve written?
I’ve always been lucky with people I’ve worked with. They’ve been very inclusive and collaborative in their approach. I’d be on set, in castings, involved with all the rehearsals. We tried to create jobs where I could be on set. I’d do the epk’s [Electronic Press Kits, e.g. ‘making-of’ films], be around to choreograph something or be magic advisor. I found the more projects I did, I started to think of things I would have done, but because I wasn’t directing I didn’t have that opportunity.
When did you make the decision to try your hand at directing?
A few years ago, I was doing a few shorts but I’ve never been on a ladder where the top is to direct. It’s not been a massive intention. I’d withdrawn from ideas a couple of times before. My Brothers, though, had such a momentum to it, you know. I read it and I spoke to Andrew Meehan from the Irish Film Board and said I was interested in directing it. It kind of snowballed then, so I didn’t have the opportunity to change my mind and I think that’s what needed to happen, really.
Do you intentionally work with non-actors?
No, I’m very open to working with both. The X Factor-style auditions we did in Cork were wide open. I was casting for the characters, the stuff I do is character-led. When you work that way you’re looking for the person. I did meet actors who were very, very good, but not quite the character I was looking for.
Did you ever worry that might add further complications to the already daunting task of a first feature?
I went purely by the person. Casting someone to play the character, obviously, but I wanted them to be themselves as much as possible. In this particular story, that’s achievable. If it were some medieval romp, then you’d have to look at extracting more performance rather than just try to cast who you think is the character, in a sense. We had five sessions of casting and found the two younger brothers quickly. The older brother, Noel, was more difficult to cast because he’s not pro-active as a lead role, he’s quite reactionary and he doesn’t have a lot to say. So it’s a tough character to cast. I didn’t want there to be too much weight to what he said, I wanted there to be a flippancy to him. At the same time, I wanted his face to express the burden and responsibility that he had. It was as much a visual thing as a performance to me. Then, before filming, I had a bit of time with the three boys. We improvised around the script and I gave them history and memories so when they’re looking at each other in the van there’s much more than just a line on a page in their eyes. It gives them the ability too, to recount stuff, when you do an improvisation. That kept the script fresh.
So, with working with Will, was he as present as you had been on your screenplays’ shoots?
Will hadn’t done anything before, so I was brought on initially to advise him. I read the script, and fell for it. I think our voices are strangely similar. I felt like I could have written the script myself, in a funny sort of way. The original intention had been to write and direct my first feature, but there was no need for me to do it, because Will was writing this film that I really went for. I was lucky to find a guy that was kind of similar and he was completely included in the whole process. I cast him in the film and he was at all the workshops. I kept throwing Will in to do improvisations and he was really, really good. He plays the arcade manager in the film.
You say you and Will share a similar voice. Are there particular subjects you want to address in your films?
This is what resonated on My Brothers – it’s the dynamic of three brothers, three boys. Any kind of father/son dynamic interests me in my work. The imminent death of their father was also a way into how people handle grief. It’s not something I’ve had too much experience with, so it intrigues me. My Brothers was material I would have written myself – boys, their dads and how they battle to be the head honcho. Contemporary man is an issue that I’m looking at a lot at the minute. So it is quite male-orientated, but I’m open. I don’t think I’m going to have a career where I just keep repeating myself, even though of late it might seem that way.
Did anything strike you about the experience of working in the Irish industry as opposed to across the pond?
No. I was a complete stranger to everyone and had no problems whatsoever. In terms of the filmmaking process, it was kind of a little bit different to what people would be used to doing. They needed to be loose on set, not to be over precious about minor details that are irrelevant. Sometimes there can be a lot of faffing on set.
So, the Irish faff less?
No, you don’t faff less, but the point is, I came onboard with my own approach, not knowing anyone, and everyone was amazing straight away.
Have you ever been particularly struck by a quote, that you might occasionally draw on in your work?
Once, on the set of Heartlands, there was this actor going around handing out sweets. He just said ‘random acts of kindness,’ and that really resonated with me on My Brothers. That idea that people can come into your life and there’s no agenda, no weirdness.
Through this experience of directing your first feature, has there been a high point?
We were very lucky to have Snow Patrol do the music. I think the music is absolutely beautiful and it was such a random surprise. We sent the script through a friend to Gary Lightbody [Snow Patrol’s front man]. He sent us the songs and in terms of what the songs are and how they relate to the film – it was a real surprise, and a real high.
Was there a low point?
Filming in November with torrential rain, floods and daylight hours from about 10am to 11:30am. And the funny thing was that at one point we actually had to hire a rain machine – in Cork in November. We knew every day was pretty much an impossible schedule. So we worked our asses off to make sure we got as much out of the days as possible. We had twenty days. We were very conscious of that. In discussion with PJ Dillon, the dop, we talked about how minimal we could be with the lighting, how raw and simple we could make it. We tried to get into the project as simply as possible but to maintain the sense of beauty that we wanted from the film.
Finally, can you offer advice to anyone on how to get started?
Grow up with Shane Meadows, would be my advice… No, really though. We’ve made close on a hundred little shorts, just for fun. We don’t screen them or put them into festivals. I think that’s one of the things that separates us, me and Shane: we will just make something anyway. When we make a film we say to people, ‘we’re making a film, would you like to put some money in?’, rather than, ‘we want to make a film, can you give us some money?’ We really enjoy doing it. Get a little camera and have a go, don’t wait around for budgets. Just make it yourself, don’t make excuses.
This article originally appeared in Film Ireland magazine Summer 2010, published July 2nd 2010.