Continuing Caroline Farrell’s Irish Women in Film Series: Shannon Moncrief.
Shannon Moncrief is an American / Irish independent film maker based in Dublin. She established the film company Pandora Picturesand wrote, directed and produced the short film The Legend, which is currently on the international film festival circuit and has been selected to screen at the 2012 Underground Film Festival, Dun Laoghaire, Dublin, happening from the 13th-16th September. Her credits include directing the musical event ‘TrócaireLive‘ and ‘Basso Continuo’. She also shot and directed a music video for Meteor’s Best Band Awardees Future Kings of Spain. She is currently in pre-production on a feature documentary about the Dublin Underground music scene over the past three decades called Kingdom of the Conscience as well as in pre-production on a music video.
Hello Shannon! Can you start by telling us how and why you got started in the business?
I came into the business from the writing side. I was working on a novel based on experiences I’d had working in conflict zones out of college and shared my draft manuscript with my brother who’s a cinematographer in LA. He thought the story would make a good film and asked if I’d considered turning it into a screenplay. I didn’t know how to write scripts at the time, but the very next day a pamphlet arrived in the post offering free screenwriting classes with Michael Kinirons at the local library! I was hooked and over time enrolled in a series of courses, including a workshop in London with Syd Field and a Pro-Series Screenwriting Intensive with Hollywood Producer, Hal Croasmun. One of my short film scripts was so tangible to me that I couldn’t imagine handing it to someone else to make. So, I set up a film company, drafted a story board, gathered a crew, produced and directed the film myself.
Did you have any formal instruction, like film school etc, or are you self-taught?
I studied film at the University of Paris so I built my foundation of directing from the French auteur New Wave model. In addition to the screenwriting classes, I’ve had wonderful opportunities to acquire film making skills from courses supported by Irish arts funding. Through Filmbase, I took a directing class with Vinny Murphy and learned camera and lighting from Michael Lavelle, who recently won the World Cinematography Award at Sundance. I’ve also attended workshops at Screen Training Ireland on ‘How to Make Your First Feature’ with Graham Cantwell and Masterclasses with David Simon, the creator, producer and writer of The Wire and Mark Romanek, the award-winning music video director. I’m continually studying, learning and growing as a filmmaker.
What and/or whom have been your seminal influences?
My mom was a tremendous influence on introducing me to film and nurturing that passion. When I was about four years old, I remember her waking me up one night to see a movie on TV that she explained was by a brilliant Swedish Director named Ingmar Bergman and really wanted me to see. As I sleepily watched Wild Strawberries in my nightgown, I can remember being riveted by the story imagery and subtle tension on-screen. That night had a profound effect on me and sparked a magical love for film within. Growing up, my mom would take me and my brother to the movies regularly and not just to the kids films either, but to foreign films, documentaries and adult themed even. My mom was an English teacher and encouraged us to talk about the films we saw and analyse the plot, characters and symbolism to better understand the story. I think by her introducing me to film at an early age as something to be comprehended visually and cogently, it enabled me to naturally combine the screenwriting with the directing. I still enjoy discussing a film after I’ve seen it and consider it a part of the entire movie going experience.
Who are your current favourite and/or influential people?
I continue to be enamoured by the French New Wave directors, most notably Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and screenwriter Marguerite Duras. To me, their films still exude a freshness. I also love the stimulating vision of Asian Directors Akira Kurosawa, Wong Kar Wai and Ang Lee. My favourite directors of the moment that stand out above all others are Sophia Coppola and Spike Jonze. They make great music videos as well as features. I like the screenwriting styles of Charles Kaufman and Alan Ball and would be honoured to work with Cinematographer Christopher Doyle.
Fantasy dinner party guests: Living or dead, name six people you would love to have around your dinner table.
David Bowie because he’s fascinating and ground breaking; Jesus for the insight; Albert Einstein who could offer a different perspective to the conversation; Andy Warhol who would turn the party into a happening; Francois Truffaut for the stories; and Anais Nin for the poetic input and to get us all dancing.
What is your opinion of the current Irish film scene?
When considering the state of the Irish film scene, I think you first need to check the pulse of the Irish Film Industry. I see the two as inextricably linked. The reality as we know it is that we’ve faced an overall economic downturn and budget cuts were made across all sectors, including the Irish Film Board. Although, even with the coffers down by 14.9% for 2012, we should stay heartened that they still have a pot of funds available to support film making schemes and training. What has changed is that the IFB is going to have to become more focused on return for investment and we Irish film makers are going to need to adopt this approach as well. Film can be an expression of art, but the bottom line is it’s a business. There’s an old Hollywood expression that ‘film is time and money’ and I think the Irish film scene is now facing the truth of this idiom. The funding is there, but the competition is stronger. Current films proposed for funding are going to need to be made with a view towards distribution and profit, not just telling a nice story.
The film scene itself seems to have recently gone through an identity crisis, but on the surface appears to be prospering with Irish film makers recently taking top awards at A-list international film festivals Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, and Toronto and nominated for five Academy Awards®. In this time of slashed budget cuts, continued support of the industry confirms that it’s an integral part of Ireland’s job and tourism creation with 20% of all tourists identifying television and film images as their reason for visiting.
I’d like to see Film Producers filling in the financial gaps by identifying complementary and additional sources of support apart from the Irish film industry. Kickstarter is an example of alternative ways of raising film funds. It’s great that the film industry provides assistance in releasing films into local theatres and I hope this continues to grow. Irish films can generate ticket sales at the box office locally and internationally as proven by the recent successes of The Guard and His and Hers. I would also like to see national cinemas getting more behind Irish filmmaking and running Irish shorts before their feature presentations.
Can you pinpoint the highlight of your career so far?
Interviewing Vedran Smailovic, (The Cellist of Sarajevo) and filming his absorbing performance. It was so inspiring to talk with him about his past iconic gesture against war when he played his cello publicly outside in the rubble while the city of Sarajevo was under siege. When I asked him if he ever went back to Sarajevo, he replied, ‘I don’t go back, I go forward!’ You can’t help but be changed after a conversation with someone like him. To me, getting his moving story out to others is part of what the beauty and purpose of film is about.
What would you say is your ultimate goal?
To win the pinnacle of achievement in this profession – the Oscar® – twice. One for Best Director and one for Best Screenplay. They would make nice book ends.
Do you have any advice to offer ‘newbies’ coming into the business?
If someone is interested in filmmaking, my advice is to get active. Start crewing on films, any films. In the beginning, I first crewed on a documentary and music video and even ended up making a cameo appearance in it! The aim is to gain experience. There are constantly people looking for crew members. Film Ireland’s notice board is one place where jobs are posted. Once on set, do the best job you can. Be reliable, thorough, professional and learn the ropes. If more education is needed, there are some great programmes sponsored by Filmbase, Screen Training Ireland, local Arts Councils and libraries. If someone wants to write for film, then start writing. Attend film events, get to know the film scene and your craft. If someone wants to make their own film, funding schemes are still available, but it’s no longer a perquisite. Filmbase rents equipment at a fair price and video cameras aren’t that expensive to purchase. I’ve even seen an amazing film shot entirely from an iphone video camera app. Making a film today doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. You can download software to make your own edits and upload the films electronically to submit to film festivals all over the world. In this modern age of technology the film industry is a much more open field.
Thanks, Shannon, any final comments you would like to add?
Joseph Conrad once said that to be happy in life you should find your bliss and follow it. Don’t let anyone stop you from pursuing your passion whatever it is. If it’s filmmaking, then start making films. If it’s writing, then write!
You can check out Shannon’s website at www.shannonmoncrief.com
Her facebook page is at https://www.facebook.com/?ref=hp#!/pages/Shannon-Moncrief/436681913039167
Caroline Farrell is an author and screenwriter: