IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: Kevin Liddy, director of ‘The Suffering Kind’

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On Set: Shooting The Suffering Kind

The Suffering Kind is an intimate drama about an inner-city priest and a sanitation worker trying to maintain his sobriety. Director Kevin Liddy spoke to Film Ireland ahead of the film’s screening this Sunday at the IFI as part of its monthly showcase for new Irish film. The film screens alongside Kevin’s first cinema short, Horse.

Kevin’s earlier films, Horse, Soldier’s Song and Country, were marked by their use of the rural Irish countryside. In his latest work, Liddy has shifted the focus of location to the urban setting of the Hudson Valley in New York. Filmed by Oscar-nominated Declan Quinn, The Suffering Kind is a beautifully poignant portrait of a life less lived.

Kevin explains the genesis of the project:

“I had moved to America in 2010, after a feature script I’d been developing for 4 years fell apart and the coup de-grace of being shortlisted for a Signatures project then rejected. I had known Declan Quinn for close to 30 years, having initially worked with him on Fergus Tighe’s Clash of the Ash in the mid ’80s and Declan approached me to be script editor on his Rory Gallagher script.

“While working on it, we discussed making a short film in the Hudson Valley using local talent and getting me back in the directing saddle. I used to have to drive past the town of Newburgh on my way to Declan’s house and was always intrigued by this town with its wide, panoramic main street – Broadway- and its evocative mixture of elegant brownstones and inner-city decay, its inhabitants struggling with the onslaught of advanced capitalism where industry had come, needed workers, and left, leaving great areas of depression and crime. I wrote the script set in this town, thinking it would be smart to have a project set not too far from Declan’s house and availability.

 

“I wrote the piece over Christmas 2013, sent it to Declan who really liked it and we decided to co-produce the script together and see how we’d fare. Declan had a 35mm camera he owned and had a groovy long lens – the ones that give you those ’70s light flares – so we thought we were half way there.

 

“Within a few months we were prepping and breaking down the script, location hunting and casting, and Declan was accessing  his contacts for more camera gear, film stock – Kodak in America gave us 10 rolls of 35mm stock for free, getting a small crew together filled with professional and learner alike and we picked my birthday as a date to start shooting. I prevailed upon my brother, Dermot, to invest in the thing and he put 15 thousand dollars on the table – that was its genesis.”
 

The film is about the power of delusion and the longings that haunt us and Kevin explains how he came up with the character of Michael Hannan and his situation to play out the film’s themes.

 

“It was a mixture of dramatic supposition and autobiographical evidence, an observation of a lower-case, the guys who slip through the cracks. I had come up close and personal with middle-age angst and was striving to let go of delusional life models that were crumbling under this weight of longing and despair and what I was going through seemed like what all of America was trying to wake up from; a great betrayal the society was in denial about. You could see it on the streets, unemployed men like ghosts hanging around the streets, a shell shocked look on their faces, wondering how on earth they ended up here while all around them the wheels of life grinded on, oblivious to their pain.

 

“I wanted to capture that exquisite decay, that undoing of character in the face of the cold light of day, but we wanted to frame it, mount the narrative in handsome brush strokes so the form might ameliorate the more depressing elements in the story.”

 

These brush strokes were achieved with Declan Quinn and provide visual evidence to the film’s themes by being shot on film rather than digital. “It was imperative for me to shoot on 35mm,” explains Kevin, “to prime the canvas with a certain elegiac subtext, to bear witness to the more analog characteristics of the human heart lost in the insatiable needs of an uncaring world.

 

“Finding the right locations is half the battle really, painting with battered walls that were found as opposed to ‘designed’, taking our lead from these locations, designing shots to avail of existing light and supplementing with the artificial of which we didn’t have much of. Declan’s experience is vast and his qualities of empathy are very strong so it was a matter of refinement and the throwing out of the rococo. He’s also very susceptible to listening, allowing me to riff off on the philosophical while guiding me back to the concrete and we had a shared literacy of film and film’s quiver of possibilities so it was how to marry our choices with what was possible.
“The thing is, when you have a face in front of the camera that looks like it came from those streets as opposed to central casting it provides you with inspiration to take the road less travelled, to capture this less seen dignity, to realise the fact that the back of buildings are more beautiful that the grand entrances they support. We shot the piece in 5 days and Declan was a delight to work with, a wonderful cinematographer with a great sense of empathy.”

 

Alongside the visual, composer Rori Coleman brings a beautiful original score to bear upon proceedings, carrying with it a strong sense of sorrow that achieves an elegiac lament yet is never sentimental. Kevin explains how he came to work with Rori and what he brought to the film.

 

“I had always had a strong relationship with composers, believing that cinema is closer to music than prose in its rhythms and pace, its effect on the subconscious, etc., and had started out on Horse working with Donal Lunny. Brian Willis [producer] suggested Rori to me and we met up and started talking about the world of the script, its fever and longings, the characters’ bridges all broken behind them; and so we started teasing out the musical expression of that forlorn but previously fecund state the characters lived in.

 

“The trick is to be open yet deliberate in this hunting down of timbre and Rori is not only a very sophisticated man but old enough – sorry Rori – to recognize and empathize with this life pall. Agreeing on a common language which comes gradually anyway, I remember having discussions with him about jazz and how that might give us an entrance to this world or not, how jazz for me was too loose limbed and how for us the score must have a predetermined, rigorous alignment with the images, so it was a question of using jazz instruments supported by strings, etc., to marry the  interplay into a precise interdependence.

 

“What Rori brought to the film was an understanding of the poetic, the inner drama of peoples lives hinted at, their beautiful miseries made visible. Not only is he a craftsman with a broad knowledge of the technical, but he lets in the paradox and is impressionable in the best sense of the word. I couldn’t talk more highly of the man.”

 

And so for Kevin it is obviously a tremendous moment to experience the film in all its glory on the big screen in the IFI. “Yes, but like all filmmakers you’re worried about how the Digital Cinema Package will perform as opposed to a print, how the colours and blacks hold up, how at my age I’m still fucking around with shorts as opposed to features, blah, blah. The wonderful part is when, for a moment, you can forget those concerns, when the cut from one swell to another works powerfully and, for an instant, you are a filmmaker like any other, impressed by the autonomy of the piece as if it had nothing to do with you, where its life is no longer dependent on you and the magic of cinema takes over.”
The Suffering Kind screens on Sunday, 14th September 2014 at 13.00 as part of the IFI’s Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.Kevin Liddy will participate in a post-screening Q&A.

Tickets for The Suffering Kind are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie

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