Filmmaker Johnny Gogan talks to Rose Byrne about his journey into filmmaking since being the founding editor of Film Ireland or Filmbase News as it was known twenty five years ago in 1987.
Johnny has written and directed fifteen films to date including shorts, documentaries and features. He has been involved in a number of projects promoting the film industry over the years. His latest venture with Sleeping Warrior Productions has seen the recent launch of Studio North West T.V, an on line channel. His latest feature Black Ice is due for release in early 2013.
You were the founding editor of Film Ireland or Filmbase News as it was known in 1987. How did that come about?
I returned to Dublin from working as a journalist in South America early in 1987. The three tenets of Filmbase were equipment, training, and information. Filmbase members had agreed they needed a newsletter as a means of addressing the information issue. I always thought there was space for a film magazine in Ireland. Up to that point there hadn’t been a consistent magazine.
I was working with Mike Collins on the early issues and ironically the first thing we had to report was the abolition of the Film Board. Some people might have questioned the magazine’s timing in the light of that but in a way, we were bearing witness to the biggest event in Irish film and keeping the magazine was an act of faith on the future that many of us could see for filmmaking in the country.
Anyway it became apparent after the first three issues this was more than a newsletter. It was the genesis of a film magazine for film practitioners. We attempted to tread a line between the necessity of people in filmmaking to have information while in time developing a critical angle on the film industry in Ireland. It became a good means of creating awareness of the lack of a film policy in Ireland. There were a lot of good ideas coming out of Filmbase at the time. The magazine was a good way of transmitting these ideas to the wider industry and public.
You were editor for three years. How and when did you get into filmmaking?
I start attending training courses in Filmbase making a transition from journalism. Within a few years I had written some scripts and made my first short Stephen in 1990. It was one of the early Filmbase Shorts. It worked really well for me and did well in the festivals and was widely broadcast. Quite memorably it was released along with Jane Campion’s first feature Sweetie which had a cinema release in Ireland. That was a great boost for Stephen and was really my starting point.
You set up Bandit Films in 1989 to make your first short Stephen. Did you find it necessary to set up a company or was it something you wanted to do anyway?
I was creating an umbrella with Paul Donovan. We started to produce Stephen but Paul had to go to Australia so it didn’t work out at that time. However I liked the idea of an entity and not just me as a sole operator. When Paul returned we moved on and worked on The Last Bus Home. Meanwhile I had done a film called The Bargain Shop for ZDF/ARTE and RTÉ. To do that production I did need a functioning limited company and I’ve managed to keep one operating since then.
So did having your own company give you more control?
Well it did but it shouldn’t have to be the way. It’s quite tiresome maintaining a company. There are a lot of administrative aspects to it. Though it has made increasing sense and it was a good exercise. I and Paul then formed Bandit Films Ltd.
What was your short film Stephen about?
It was about a young unemployed Dubliner who was very taken with the victory of Stephen Roche in the Tour de France. So much so, that he takes his eye off the road while on his bike and crashes. While unconscious he dreams he is a great national hero. Really the film was a play on Dublin being a depressed place at that time. The victory of Stephen Roche was a national event and it captured people’s imagination similar to the national football team in the Euros in 1988.
Sport helped us transcend the reality we were stuck in at that time. The film was an ironic take on that. The narrative was non-linear and the character never speaks. People who saw it a few times said they got more from it each time. It was unconventional and low budget. It was broadcast around four times on RTÉ. It won Best Film award at the Galway Film Fleadh in 1990.
(The Bargain Shop)
You already mentioned The Bargain Shop a film you wrote and directed in 1993. Your company was the first in Ireland to produce a commissioned drama for German T.V with The Bargain Shop. How did that come about?
Well there’s some interesting strands in my family background. My father worked in Germany in the late 1970s and my grandfather had a strong connection with pre-war Germany in the thirties which I subsequently made a documentary about.
My sister Jane Gogan had done the EAVE producers training programme and was working with me as executive producer on The Bargain Shop. She suggested to me to try ZDF/ARTE in Mainz. I was at a film festival in Hamburg with my short Stephen and on the back of that went to Mainz to meet someone about The Bargain Shop. I had phoned ahead but when I got there she said she couldn’t see me. I explained I had travelled all this way and was there anyone else I could talk to. She went off to get someone while I anxiously paced the corridors. Eventually I met Claudia Tronnier who later became commissioning editor for the film. Later my first feature The Last Bus Home was commissioned by public television W.D.R and my film Mapmaker by Z.D.F/ARTE.
You wrote The Bargain Shop before Stephen. What was it about?
I suppose it was a film with a lot to say for itself. It had a more conventional narrative than Stephen. If you think of where we are now in terms of the economy it was a kind of allegory for the busted economy and the corrupt Ireland I saw in the late Eighties and early Nineties. What it had to say for itself was very enduring. In many ways, aesthetically it was a backwards step but in terms of taking on the bigger story form it was a forward step. It lacked some of the lightness of touch that Stephen had, perhaps because the script was an earlier work. Corruption was very difficult to talk about in Ireland at that time. Certainly in a journalistic sense criticism was heavily put down. The film was a way of talking about corruption, saying in fiction what a lot of people saw to be true. It was also a chance to work with a feature-like plot and narrative albeit in a one hour format. It meant I wasn’t going straight from short film to feature length. The Bargain Shop and Stephen were complementary works and led to my first feature The Last Bus Home.
So Stephen was a good calling card for you?
Yeah. A lot of people were fond of that film. It was ambitious at the time. Filmmaking was at its infancy and a lot of films weren’t being made. I had a lot of very good encouragement, Tiernan McBride andPat Murphy who were active in Filmbase. It was part of the spirit of Filmbase. They had a good connection with the next generation of filmmakers. It’s so important to have a sense of mentorship.
Where did you get the idea for your first feature The Last Bus Home which you wrote and directed in 1997?
For myself and producer Paul Donovan It was very much our era in music. We both could identify with punk music. The Punk (and subsequent New Wave) era was seminal even though it ended with the collapse of the Irish economy in early 1980s. It was like a small revolution that failed.
I wanted to tell that story as by the mid-nineties we were coming out of that period of stagnation. In the early nineties there were two kinds of revisionism, the national question and we were a deeply conservative country that was becoming liberal. This was being achieved by the liberal agenda that Mary Robinson’s election represented. That was partly true, but I felt it was a struggle that was going on before that. There were various highs and troughs in that battle and one of the critical eras were the late seventies. It was happening in subcultures, but subcultures are very important for the revitalisation of a society.
The film was about a microcosm of that subculture and how these kinds of moments of extreme intense experience even though they fail, have reverberations through a society and have future meaning. The coda of the film takes place ten years later in the early nineties with the decriminalisation of homosexuality. I was trying to connect what happened in the nineties with what happened in the late seventies.
Most filmmakers in Ireland would see Dublin or the larger cities like Cork or Galway as the best locations to further their career. Yet you moved to Leitrim in a gamble that seems to have paid off. Were you worried about your career when you moved?
I never really thought of myself as having a career. I know some people looked at me and said, “Uh, he’s on a career path” (laughs) I had made three urban films and I needed to revise what I had to say. I had lived in Dublin fifteen years and things were changing. By the late nineties the arts was becoming more corporate and the city was losing some of the village atmosphere I had enjoyed. So I decided to up sticks and move. I had this project Mapmaker and felt if I moved to a rural area essentially where the film was being made it would improve. It was either move abroad or further into Ireland away from boom time values that were becoming prevalent then. It was just time for me to move on. I haven’t looked back and it’s been a really good period.
It was in the light of that move that I surrendered my role in Bandit Films Ltd which paved the way for Michael Garland to join the company and for the renaming of the company I had set up with Paul Donovan to Grand Pictures.
What was the first screenplay you ever read?
It was by American filmmaker John Sayles. The screenplay was called Matewan.
What filmmakers do you admire?
I’m really taken with Sayles work and am very influenced by his work. I’m a big fan of Pedro Armodovar. Also Ken Loach and Irish filmmaker Joe Comerford.
What’s your favourite role, writer or director?
I would say director. I have benefited greatly from co-writing collaborations. I’ve worked with Joe O Byrne a lot. If I had been more career-minded I would have done more directing. Having taken this path of writer/director though it’s meant I got to do the films I wanted to make.
So is it fair to say when you started out you weren’t thinking of becoming a filmmaker for the rest of your life?
That’s true, I’ve always seen it as part of a mix of things, I’ve been involved with journalism, politics, even stood for election a few times with no success. At the moment I’m involved with the fracking issue in the North West. My involvement in the fracking issue arose out of my interest in film. A film called Gaslands had been made in the States. I took it on the road with the mobile cinema I’ve been involved with. It was a good way of raising the debate.
You’re very active in the film community. You created the Adaptation Film Festival in Dromahair, Co. Leitrim in 2005. Where did you get this idea from and what did you hope to achieve?
I was involved in the hand over of the mobile cinema from Leitrim County Council to independent stewardship and was looking for new ways to use the cinema. I had attended workshops with screenwriter and educator Stephen Cleary. I learned on that course that fifty to seventy percent of screenworks were adaptations. I thought about the strong literary tradition in Ireland. We looked at writers whose work had been adapted already in Ireland. We decided on John McGahern as our first subject.
Working with the Irish Film Archive we found eight films, two of which had not been seen since first broadcast in the early eighties. We were acknowledging the contributions these writers had made to television drama and cinema.
Significantly John Mc Gahern died the year after, so it was good to have done his work. We also archived all the films. I’m no longer involved and the festival has branched out into international writers which is exciting, so I think it is a festival that has legs.
It must have been beneficial to the wider community. Has it grown in success?
Yeah, Cinema North West has grown into an organisation that is an exhibiter of good quality films and they provide training, including in screenwriting for the north west and the wider community nationally. It provides a strong focus for the film community. We’re geographically dispersed so it’s great to have ways of crossing paths and the mobile cinema provides that.
You recently stepped down as chair of Cinema North West, how and when was this project started?
It started as Leitrim Mobile Cinema in 2001. I joined the board in 2004. We rebranded it as CinemaNorth West in 2007. I had left the board but when the financial crisis hit Leitrim and Sligo County Council wanted to pull out. I came back in to work with the Board again to establish an independent company. It worked out, we traded out of the red for a while then the International Funds for Ireland came in which allowed us to hire a full time director Colin McKeown. We’re on a pretty sound footing now, so it was a good time to leave. I have a three year rule with organisations that I tend to stick to. Things should be moving after three years. For the organisation you don’t want the it becoming too associated with one individual. It frees you up to go on and do other things and it’s healthy for the organisation too. That’s the position I am taking with my current role on the Film Board too.
You were appointed in 2009 by Minister for Arts to the board of the Irish Film Board. As the only member outside Dublin, does living and working in a rural setting have any advantages such as highlighting the needs of the film community in the North West?
The board already has a regional dimension to it with an office in Galway. I suppose people’s understanding of regional policy is largely about companies coming in from Dublin and shooting films in rural areas. I would make the analogy with regional theatre: in the early eighties we understood regional theatre to be companies such as the Gate and the Abbey touring Ireland with their shows.
In the mid to late eighties a whole range of regional theatre companies started up all over Ireland, Red Kettle, Blue Raincoat, Field Day, Druid etc. These are strong examples now of regional theatre companies who have had a big impact not just nationally but internationally. My argument is we can develop film and digital media in the regions in the same way given the technological changes taking place. The prevailing model for film we’re working off is still the 20th century model. We still have to find a model for the 21st century. Regional development is a key part in developing film and digital media in the next ten years. Regional Policy is part of what I do on the Film Board but there’s more to it than that. Apart from my involvement in the Irish Film Board, I have tried to be active in the region and develop the sector.
You are a member of Studio North West, a forum for filmmakers and practitioners based in the North West. You have recently launched Studio North West T.V channel. What’s your involvement in this?
Early in 2011 I commissioned a feasibility study into the film sector in the North West. I also looked at how we might benefit from incoming productions. When the study was completed by Oonagh Monahan I circulated it to as many people as I could who I knew were active in the region. Cinema North West called a meeting in February 2011 and the Forum has been meeting regularly since then. There was debate about how to proceed; some people felt it was too soon to cluster. I accepted that but had to follow my own instincts.
I pushed along with the idea of clustering and along with Patrick O’Rourke of Sleeping Warrior Productions set up Studio North West T.V. which is an online channel. It’s an outlet for the work already produced here most of which has not been previously broadcast. It’s also a way of generating new work. My hope is Studio North West T.V can assist in increasing the output of the sector in the region. It’s also about building people’s confidence.
It’s a great incentive for filmmakers and writers in the area. They’ll now have an outlet for their work.
Exactly it’s a way for them to say “O.k. we can develop a short drama or a short documentary series for the web”. I think it’s a great opportunity and though developed through my own company it’s not about having control. I hope people can see they have their independence while getting their work out there.
Can you tell us a bit about your documentary “Homeland” shown on T.G.4?
The film is about emigrants and immigrants in Leitrim. It’s a small place and the people have an amazing openness about them. I believe it’s because they feel the benefits of people moving in boosting the population. Also, a lot of Leitrim people lived abroad from necessity and experienced a wider world. It’s an openness you don’t find in the richer counties and its one of the reasons I like living here. Homeland is about a mixture of people who lived abroad and how that experience formed their lives when they returned; it is also about people who weren’t born here like myself but decided to make it their home.
Your latest film Black Ice is due for release in early 2013 and was filmed in Leitrim and Sligo and co-written with Brian Leyden. What inspired you to make this film?
I’m fascinated with cars and the way people can get into a car and cut themselves off from the rest of the world. There’s a phenomenon in rural areas of young men in particular jumping into cars and losing the plot. This is really strong in border counties because the border roads are like No Man’s Land in terms of the law. It makes them a choice location for this wild driving.
I approached Brian Leyden with an outline for the story. He was writing a book about suicidal behaviour in young men. He had a good insight into what’s going on behind boy racing. We worked really well together. I’ve been lucky in collaboration. It’s a very layered story with layered meanings.
So with Black Ice you proved your point, you can make films in the North West?
Yeah, I think so, though it was challenging but we hope to do it again. I can say to myself now I’m not waiting another ten years to make a feature. We’ve found a model that works and I hope to do another one that way in the next two to three years. We had a great cast and the film has a youthful energy about it. Killian Scott from Love/Hate, new comers Jane McGrath and Dermot Murphy. We also had a fine cast of the older generation if you like, such as Donal Kelly, writer Michael Harding, Deirdre O‘Meara, Marian Quinn and Conor McDermottroe.
It was great to work with Peter Martin the young camera man who shot my short film Astray and who, among others of the crew, I met through the Studio North West Forum. I really wanted to work with that crew again. Nicky Gogan and Trevor Curran from Still Films in Dublin came in to provide logistical support to the production. Nicky was also very engaged with the development of the script.
What’s your next project?
Getting Studio North West tv on a sounder footing. I’m also looking at the short film Astray and thinking of adapting it into a longer work. Based on a Seamus Heaney text, it’s a story definitely worthy of a longer film.
Well Johnny you certainly packed a lot into the last twenty five years. What advice have you got for filmmakers and writers trying to break into the business?
I think collaboration is very important, as it’s a collaborative medium. It’s great to get good mentorship as well. I know I benefited from more experienced people who were generous enough to share their experience. Filmbase provided that kind of nurturing environment. I’m hopeful Studio North West can do the same. You need to be open, prepared to have a go, follow your instincts and don’t be too defensive when your ideas are challenged. Because I hadn’t gone to film college I was very aware of people around me who had gone and what they might think of me and what I was doing, but you know it’s not like that. So as I said be open and give it a go.
Johnny Gogan’s short film Astray broadcasts in RTE Shortscreen’s Autumn/Winter season.