Writer-director Stephen Kane tells the story of his debut DV feature The Crooked Mile.
From Dawn to Dust
It’s 1991 and I’ve just finished writing a script for another short film. I decide it’s time to write a feature. The shorts I’ve made have been a terrific experience and I feel I’m ready for the big leap. I get a pen and paper and I sit down at a desk, ready for the inspiration to flow. I stare at the page for a while. Nothing’s happening yet, but there’s no need to panic. I watch a lot of films, and try to work out what type of film I want to make: Five Easy Pieces, Ace in the Hole, Badlands, Cries and Whispers. I start reading books trying to make myself into a more fully rounded cultured person. The copybook on my desk remains blank, and I start to worry. I try to think of subjects worthy of a script – corruption, war, the depleting ozone. Nothing inspires me. I’m getting desperate now, and I decide I’m just going to create a character and see where it goes. The character I create is a young man called Elliot Stray who’s dropped out of medical school and doesn’t know what to do with his life. It’s full of angst and apathy. The story is terrible. I wonder if I should give him some dream to chase after, but at the same time I think his position is a perfectly valid one. I keep meeting versions of him in real life, and thinking; why should all film characters be driven, obsessive? Is there no room for aimless slackers?
I struggle on with the story through three drafts, but it’s going nowhere. On the next draft I do something bold. I relegate him to being the secondary character, and I introduce a brand new character as its focus. This character is driven. It’s a young girl wanting to find a father she’s never met, and create a family out of all these dysfunctional adults. The story is working. I get to a fifth draft and then begin showing it to people. It gets a positive reaction, and I send it to the Film Board. They like it and give me a development loan. I go in search of a producer, and show it to Petra Conroy. We’re already working together on a short called Scarecrow. She wants to take it on and we begin to look into the funding possibilities.
It’s 1995 and the Film Board and RTÉ launch a scheme called Reel Time. They want to make four one-hour dramas. We decide to enter for it and I made cuts to the script to fit it into the slot. The reaction is positive, but inconclusive. We’re on a short list and we’re put through a development process. I do several re-writes and we wait for a reaction. The waiting goes on and on, until we finally get an answer – No!
We’re both devastated. The script limps on, and we look into the alternative avenues to fund it. The script is dead and eventually Petra give up on it. I begin working as a porter, and think about what to do. Years go by, and the script gathers dust.
That ‘D’ word
Someone tells me about a film called Festen – that it was made on small domestic camcorder. It’s called digital. I go to see it, and I’m amazed. The picture looks good. It doesn’t have the richness of Apocalypse Now, but that’s not the point. These guys made a film that looks good with a camera that fits in the palm of your hand and costs a few hundred quid. I do some more research into the technology and realize I can make The Crooked Mile if I can lay my hands on 40 or 50K.
I go in search of a new producer, but I decide there’s no point in going in search of an established one. The technology is new and people are skeptical of it. It’s also going to be a tough slog, and involves giving up a sizable chunk of your life. I had known Triona Campbell for a while. She had a lot of experience as a production assistant and was eager to take a step upwards. I ask her to produce the film.She says yes and soon afterwards she sets up a company with Avril Ryan, and Ihave two producers. We get some money from the Film Board and plan to shoot in the summer, if they can get the rest of the money.
A couple of months later we arrange a meeting in a pub. Triona tells me she thinks she can get more money if I’d be willing to shoot in another country. I wonder what she’s going to say next. Has she found a crew in Bosnia who’ll work for £2 a day? “Jersey” she says. We’ve got two new executive producers, Julie Daly Wallman, and Tony Arden. And we can scrape together about 150K. We agree to opt for shooting on digi-beta. We’ll get a greater resolution, and better picture quality. The money comes through and we aim to shoot in autumn 2001. Casting and crewing start straight away. We see hundreds of actors. I hear the same lines being read back to me a million times, and characters become clearer in my head. We find a great cast. Alan Smith will play the part of Elliot, while the leading role of Anna will be played by, nine year old, Dayna McKiernan. I’m confident we have the right actors, and I’m looking forward to seeing them perform together.
The cameraman is going to be of vital importance to the film. The technology was new to everyone, and we needed someone who could make best use of the camera, and still retain some sense of style. Larry Manly is our choice, and I discuss style with him. Despite being part of a new technology I don’t want the look of the film to follow the latest trends. It’s not like Dogma or MTV. The film features many references to America in the fifties and sixties – James Dean, Ferris wheels, and diners. I wanted the film to reflect Anna’s nostalgia for a world that seemed innocent. The style we wanted to create was closer to Billy Wilder than it was to Lars Von Trier. The rest of the crew places gradually fill up, and we head for Jersey.
We plan to shoot for 20 days (17 in Jersey. 3 in Dublin). The schedule us tight. Some days we’ve got to shoot 6 pages. The first day goes well up until the last two hours. We’re shooting at a bus stop, and we get a run of buses full of elderly tourists. They all want to see the film being made and take pictures of the stars. They’re surrounding us. It’s like Night of the Living Dead. We manage to shoot some of the scene, but the remainder will have to wait till another day. The good news is that the picture looks good.
Managing the schedule becomes difficult. There’s no option for running over – 20 days is our limit. My shot list proves too ambitious and I have to scale it down or risk loosing scenes. Central to the film are some fairground scenes. We have 2 busy days to cover them. On our first day at the fairground it rains. We get half a day’s work done, and everyone becomes very nervous. The next day we have 9 pages of script to cover, and then the fairground has to be dismantled. My shot list shrinks even further. Our coverage is minimal. But to everyone’s relief we get through it all. Everyone congratulates me for getting through the day. But I worry that I’ve messed up scenes by rushing through them.
We finish the rest of the shoot on schedule, and we start to cut the film. Kevin Lavelle is our editor, and we start to knock the film into some shape. Our first cut is 95 minutes. It works, but there’s a lot of slack. We keep tightening it and making it better. At various stages we show it to people and get their reaction. Our final cut is 77 minutes including credits.
The music is added. We’ve been working on it since before the shoot, and they’ve come up with some great stuff. We mix everything together and get the final tape done.
The festivals are next. Our world premier is at the Galway Film Fleadh, and we win the Tribeca Award. In November 2001 we go to New York, and show it to distributors, agents, producers and lawyers. We do lots of festivals, and try to persuade as many people as possible to see it.
The film has become a grown up child now. It’s taken up almost a third of my life. An agent has taken it on now, and I’m happy to see it go out of my hands and into the big bad world. I still see bits of it from time to time, but my mind has wandered to a future family of films.
The Crooked Mile can take care of itself now. But I don’t want it to be an only child.
This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 86 in 2002.