Anthony Assad sat down with first-time director Steve Gunn to chat about his short film, The Caller, which screens at IndieCork. The Caller tells the story of what happens when an unemployed man receives a visit from the rent allowance inspector and things get a little too close for comfort.
The Caller is based on the play Fishes by David Fennelly, an actor contemporary of yours, who starred in the production as the hapless jobless Larry and reprises his role in the short adaptation. Can you tell us how you were exposed to the play and what led to your rendition of the material in The Caller?
I saw his play in Smock Alley as part of their Collaborations festival. It was a 20-minute version of what went on to be a longer play. I have always wanted to make a film; my main focus is acting but I’d always wanted to make movies. I thought I’d love to do something with the premise of Dave’s play. I loved the fact that there was 1 location with 2 characters. I approached him after the play and asked if there’s a chance he’d let me adapt it for a short film. I told him that I loved the premise – the rent inspector guy calling round to the gaff unannounced. I was on the dole years ago and I just thought that was brilliant. I’d love to take it and make a short film out of it. He was excited and thought it was a great idea. So I said I’d get a rough draft to him in 2 weeks. Three months later I woke up one day and realised it had been that long since I’d had the conversation with Dave. So I went over to the laptop and, for some reason, it all just came out. I needed to squeeze the play down into 8 minutes but I was able to kind of write it all in one go, which was great.
Was the screen version much different from the play?
It was different from the play, particularly the rent allowance inspector character. I knew I was going to have him call to the door, they were going to sit down, they were going to have a chat. But we go off in a different direction with his character – I wrote a monologue for him. I wasn’t really concerned where the play goes. I just needed to find a button to end it up on.
Was there any trepidation casting David again, considering his role in the stage production? How did he feel about someone else handling the reins and interpreting the material?
No there wasn’t. He had some screen credit under his belt. He was in Killing Bono and a few other things. I like the way he performed on stage. I like his style. I had no concerns at all really. As for me handling the reins of his personal project, when I wrote the 1st draft, which didn’t really change that much to what’s on screen, he read it and told me that he wasn’t sure about where I was going with it. And I said, ‘okay, let’s meet up and I’ll explain to you why I’m right’ [laughs]. So I met up with him and explained to him why I was right. Seriously though, the whole thing could have fallen apart at that stage. Dave could’ve dug his heels in and gone against the direction the film was going. But he is open-minded and was happy to run with it.
Alan Howley took on the role of the inspector, who was originally played on stage by John Doran. What happened there?
Originally, we were going to use both John and David. We were trying to nail down shooting dates. But John had a one-man show and was unavailable so I started looking to replace him with a different actor. Then it struck me that John was actually a bit young for the film version I was trying to create. I was thinking it might be more interesting with an older character there, someone who had been through his youth. Plus, I like that they’re both a certain age and are both messed-up people, which is hilarious. It worked out really well.
I’d worked with Alan on Fair City. That’s how I know him. I nearly strangled him once – he was a bit of a mouthy cab driver and I was this ex-army guy he was having a pop at; so I was able to grab him by the throat, which was fun to do! Yeh, we got on very well. He’s very practical, down-to-earth, although he’s done some crazy stuff in theatre, physical/dancing stuff . So he has a nice mix.
Which was perfect for this restrained official and then all hell breaks loose.
Yeh. Perfect. I was glad to get him.
There is a nice duality between both characters. You’re not gunning for one or the other.
Hopefully, you have sympathy for both. And that’s a credit to the actors, they flesh them out and make them human.
Both men are frustrated with their lives and the system that governs them.
When people are going about their business and their daily lives, a lot of the time you’ll meet their representative. There’s someone else in there that they’ll only show to their partner, family or their best friends. I think this film cuts through those layers fairly quickly. It’s kind of raw and it’s kind of primal. And that can be funny. It rips away all the conventions of how we’re supposed to behave. People like Larry David would be a big influence on me. I love that humour. What you are supposed to say and how you are supposed to act – and what happens if you don’t do that.
Did you find your experience as an actor afforded any advantages or insight when directing?
I’d like to think it did. I tried not to get in the way of their performances too much and, credit to the lads, they really put the work in. I tried not to over direct – but you would have to ask them if it was in any way pleasant to work with me. But I’d like to think that I try to be encouraging and supportive and not over directing.
Philip Graham, your director of photography, worked alongside you on The Mario Rosenstock Show. What attracted you to the idea of working with him again and for your directorial debut no less?
I’ve learnt lessons over the years being in short films and things like that. One of the most important lessons I learnt is having a really good DoP. Sometimes you think I’m gonna save up and get a really good camera. Why not just ring up people out there who have already done that. Philip is a legend. When I worked with him before I loved the way he was lighting stuff. When I sent a message to see if he would be interested I didn’t think he would have time. But he did. I might have caught him at a good moment because he’s very busy, often back and forth between here and England where he does a lot of work. He does a lot of TV stuff but he is really into drama. So, when I met him he was excited about the idea. I wanted it to be shot really well and I wanted it to look like a movie. I knew he would be able to do that. He was great to work with.
You also had Tom Lane on board doing the music.
His work really lifts the film as well. I basically met him at a party. I knew he did what he did. I told him I’d just made this short film and asked could I send it to him and see if he wanted to put music to it. Thankfully, he said yes. I told him I was thinking cellos, like in Mike Leigh. When the film opens he’s walking down the street and you hear these cellos… it gives it a sort of seriousness… a bit of Mike Leighishness! But then he does this brilliant thing at the end, which is where he brings in other instruments around that cello melody. And there’s a sense of peace. It’s just a gorgeous piece of music.
The film went on to premiere at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh and was selected to screen in the Underground Cinema Film Festival with a nomination for best comedy. I’m sure you’re used to seeing yourself on screen but how does it feel seeing something you’ve directed doing the rounds?
It’s amazing and a little nerve-wracking and exciting. I can’t speak highly enough of the experience. It’s like when you’re on stage and it’s opening-night. There’s a moment when you can feel the audience lock into the story and that’s a great feeling, you know you’re onto something. I love the relationship between an audience and a play or a film. I’ve seen it twice now with an audience – in Galway and in Dun Laoghaire. What’s great about it is that there might be a bit of a titter and then a bit of a laugh. And then, on both occasions, there were some great big laughs and that’s amazing – to make people laugh – you feel both relieved and excited.
You founded your own production company, Barren Lands, to produce the film. Do you have anything else on your slate for next year perhaps? Are you planning on directing again?
I would like to direct again but I’ve nothing planned. I’m busy with the soap, which is good. I made this film with the hope that I might get a little bit of money to make the next one – but I haven’t sat down and set things in motion yet. But that’s my plan.
The Caller screens on Friday, 9th October 2015 in Programme 3 of the Irish Shorts at IndieCork Festival (4 – 11 October 2015)