IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: ‘Where the Sea Used to Be’

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The feature film Where the Sea Used to Be is set to screen this Sunday at the IFI as part of its monthly showcase for new Irish film.

The film introduces us to brothers Patrick and James, who meet up in Dublin for a Christmas Eve pint and end up spending the day together when Patrick misses his train journey home to his wife and child – whom he tries to contact throughout the day on his phone from various toilets as his constipation gives him time alone to make calls.

The brothers see little of each other these day after Patrick moved to “the country” to work in “pharmaceuticals”, while James stayed in his seaside family home hoping to buy a boat and return to fishing. The two industries are as different from each other as the brothers themselves – and as they interact throughout the day we see how far the distance is between them.

Spending the day together they journey home and touch upon the past without ever seeking to affect the present – the day passes and Patrick spends the night at his family home. Along the way the pair encounter a mix of colourful characters, from a demented Santa to a loving Aunt, from a grumpy dressing-gowned ragged barowner to a loveable doe-eyed rogue. The brothers engage in conversation, though never really revealing much about themselves. There are stories to be told but not today, rather the day unfolds just like any other.

Walking in and out of beautiful wide shots the pair journey between the characters they meet drinking tea and supping pints along the way. The film’s minimal road trip is an evocative study of moments in life that exist in the ordinary, where no solutions are sought, no past issues are resolved and no traumas healed. It is what it is. And it’s all captured in a well-crafted script that embraces the rhythm and pacing of realistic dialogue and a direction that is not afraid to linger on passing moments, all gently massaged with a delicate score by Adrian Crowley.

The film was co-written by Stephen Walsh, not the first time he has collaborated with another writer on a script after working with Christine Gentet and Goran Paskaljevic on the 2001 feature film How Harry Became A Tree. Walsh was also writer and narrator of Sé Merry Doyle’s  2004 documentary feature Patrick Kavanagh, No Man’s Fool; and writer and story consultant on the 2010 documentary feature film John Ford, Dreaming The Quiet Man, also directed by Sé Merry Doyle,  before co-writing Where the Sea Used to Be with the film’s director Paul Farren, writer and director of the short films Choppers, Saturday and Pandora.

If co-writing conjures up images of collaborative brainstorming and high-fiving,  that’s not quite the case here as Stephen reflects, “I wrote a script. Paul discarded it. Then he wrote a script. I hated it… We sulked. We made peace and created a very good outline from which we never really deviated afterwards. Scenes came and went. We never “co-wrote” in the sense of sitting in a room together smoking pipes and waving our arms as inspiration struck. The final versions of scenes were usually written very close to the time we shot those scenes, often on the bus to the location; sometimes by Paul, sometimes by me.”

The original idea for the project came “after one too many vague meetings with the Irish Film Board; the need to make something that didn’t require the “permission” of such people to exist. It was also a project that couldn’t have benefited from being fed through a sausage machine by the sons and daughters of Robert McKee as they practiced their latest expensively-purchased buzz-words on us. We committed to the project in August and were shooting by Christmas. We used Christmas as a way to call our own bluff, really; shit or get off the pot.

“Then, with no money and no real means of acquiring much, we decided to also use Christmas as a backdrop to the story. Then we just needed a story! Christmas traps people together; very handy, storywise. Christmas locks people into patterns of behaviour they’d rather not be stuck in. And it’s even worse  – or better, from the point of view of story! –  if the characters are related. So we made them brothers.”

 

Stephen himself plays Patrick , while co-writer and director Paul Farren plays his brother, James. Paul explains how the casting of himself and Stephen was a sort of happy accident. “It was not our original choice. It came out of necessity rather than vanity.  When we realised it would be shot over a longer period of time we knew actors would not be able to give the commitment needed. There was someone else cast in my role briefly but he couldn’t work that amount of time. Finally, we auditioned ourselves with the help of a director friend, Vinny Murphy – so as not to be fooling ourselves –  so you could say, he gave us the job. As for everyone else, well they were people I had either worked with before or wanted to.  I believe firmly in working with people who you like. So it was a mix of actors and non-actors and I don’t think you could tell the difference between them.”

 

The result is a film whose characters are the story of the film.  Stephen explains that himself and Paul looked in other places for their story than is usual in Irish film. “Writing, for me, starts and finishes with character. What you get in all but the very best films is ‘types’ – or worse, Plot Delivery Devices – rather than characters. We placed the characters in the foreground and sought to discover what sort of story could happen to these people. Sure enough, they revealed their story to us. But they also got hungry, fed up and occasionally avoided each other! At times it seemed like we were making a documentary about people who insisted on existing but, really, didn’t! People seem to respond to the characters and, whether or not they like the film overall, many have approached us to say how relieved they are that we haven’t foisted another Crap Irish Film on the world. As Farmer Hoggett might say, “That’ll do, pig!”

 

The characters are well marshalled throughout by Paul’s confident direction, using long static takes, not driven by dialogue and never afraid to let the images do the work. “That’s what film is I suppose,” Paul muses.” Though there is plenty of conversation along the way we wanted to create something that you could understand with the sound off.”

 

Where the Sea Used to Be screens on Sunday, 22nd June 2014 at 13.00 as part of the IFI’s Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.

Director, writer and actor Paul Farren and co-writer and actor Stephen Walsh will participate in a post-screening Q&A.

Tickets for Where the Sea Used to Be are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie

 

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