The comedy feature film How to be Happy is set to screen this Sunday at the IFI as part of its monthly showcase for new Irish film. The film stars Brian Gleeson as Cormac, a marriage guidance counsellor, who starts sleeping with his clients, and Gemma-Leah Devereux as Flor, a private detective hired to investigate his antics.
Written by award-winning writer/director, Conor Horgan (One Hundred Mornings), How to Be Happy is directed by Michael Rob Costine, Mark Gaster and Brian O’Neill. The development of the script was a collaborative effort between Conor and the students of the Filmbase/Staffordshire University MSc Digital Feature Film Production Course, which prepares filmmakers for the reality of writing, developing, pitching, producing, shooting, editing, posting and distributing feature films in digital formats.
One of the film’s directors, Mark Gaster, is quick to point out the benefits of such a course, which lays a tremendous emphasis on hands-on filmmaking. “Whilst you are given a theoretical grounding, you are very quickly expected to produce material with all the same pressures and limitations, such as budget and time, that you would experience as part of any low-budget, indie production. In terms of making the feature film, Filmbase were great. They had the courage and confidence in the class to allow us make our own film. They were very supportive and their experience and guidance were invaluable, but when it came to making the film we were given full responsibility, no hand holding or looking over our shoulders. From my perspective, as a director, that’s exactly what you want and need.”
The film boasts a high calibre cast and Mark explains how they went about gathering such talents as Brian Gleeson, Carrie Crowley, Gemma-Leah Devereux , Brian Fortune and Stephen Mullan to work on the project. “Before we started we had a cast in mind. It came down to a lot of readings, perseverance and phone calls, particularly by Richard Bolger (one of our producers). Having Conor Horgan’s witty and entertaining script didn’t hurt either.
“We wanted to work with Brian Gleeson from the beginning, we knew he would bring the character of Cormac to life. Gemma-Leah Devereux’s Flor just shone in her readings. The Factory’s screen actors program was really useful for us too. From there came Stephen Mullan, who brought a lovely quirkiness and vulnerability to Al, as well as Lesa Thurman and Geraldine McAlinden. The instant we meet Brian Fortune we knew he would make a perfect comic villain by the way he mixed the dark and light tones of Larry “The Mangler” Doyle. Richard and myself knew Carrie Crowley was going to be at a screening of a film she starred in called Earthbound. We felt she’d be perfect as Barbara, our villain’s devious wife, so after the screening we literally chased her down a crowded corridor and door-stepped her; thankfully she decided to be in the film rather than get a restraining order. Laura Way, who was actually one of the directors on Filmbase’s previous film [Keys to the City], hit Bethany’s bitchy character right on the head (despite being one of the nicest people you can meet) and Rebekah Wainwright, Jenny, came to us with numerous episodes of The Tudors under her belt.”
As one of three directors – alongside Brian O’Neill and Michael Rob Costine – Mark explains how they managed to work together successfully on the one feature. “Even though we had a fair idea from the beginning as to how the filming would be broken up between us, we worked together on the production as a whole right up until we started the shooting. We made sure we knew Conor Horgan’s script inside-out so there would be a seamless continuity throughout. One of the main reasons everything went so well was due to the tremendous amount of hard work that everyone in the class put in. They all got behind the film and really pushed it. The hours cast and crew worked were insane.”
With any feature film comes challenges but there are particular challenges every micro-budget project faces – particulaly one as ambitious as How to be Happy. “Everyone will tell you that on a micro-budget you should limit yourself to two or three locations and have a small cast,” Mark explains. “We had a really big cast and were shooting all over Dublin. There were numerous offices, apartments, bars, hotels, street scenes – both night and day -, a full-blown wedding reception and the beautiful greenhouses of the botanic gardens – the humidity of which played havoc with our lens. On top of that, principal photography was about eighteen days and we only had Brian Gleeson for eleven, which is a problem when he is in most of the script. But everyone pulled together and made it work.
“Locations falling through during filming was probably one the toughest things to deal with on the fly. Venues would either get nervous or get a more valuable booking. The wedding scene was meant to be shot in a beautiful, grand room. We were supposed to be able to set up the night before, have one day to film and de-rig the following day. Out of the blue, the day we should have been setting up, the venue told us we couldn’t have the room. The next day we were forced to dress, shoot and de-rig a room in ten hours that you wouldn’t book for an AA meeting, all the while surrounded by people who didn’t really want us there. But watching the film you wouldn’t know that; our crew was brilliant. The art department transformed the room. Everyone in production worked flat out to make sure we had everything we needed. If we didn’t get this scene, we didn’t have an end to the film but from the first time I called ‘action’ everyone – camera, sound, lighting, the ADs – on the floor just pushed as hard and fast as they could. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed anything so much in quite a while.”
All in all, Mark speaks of the whole project as being “fantastic” and an experience that has served him well in the film industry. “Before the course I already had some industry interest in a couple of projects I was developing, but co-directing a feature has helped open more doors. A feature is a different type of beast to a short film and when trying to raise funding or get actors or production companies attached to a project it helps that they know you’ve been through the process before and come out the other side with a film. That experience of actually seeing a project through from development to post-production, to its first festival and search for distribution, is a steep learning curve but an excellent learning opportunity.”
How to be Happy screens on Sunday, 6th April 2014 at 13.30 as part of the IFI’s Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.
The directors will participate in a post-screening Q&A.
Tickets for How to be Happy are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie