In between cups of tea, Brian Stynes tells Film Ireland about Penitent, his first foray into features, which screens at the Underground Cinema Film Festival.
Brainstorm, brainstorm, cups of tea, brainstorm. I had just finished shooting my last short film (1914 Street) and I looked around at the small crew assembled in my tiny flat and blurted it out: “I want to try a feature”, silence, I hadn’t even started to edit the short but I knew I wanted to put the experience of the many short films to bigger use. “We can do it, if we break down the individual scenes, and shoot it like a lot of short films, we can do it”
So that’s how it started; hadn’t even got a story but that’s where the cups of tea (and brainstorming) came in.
Partner in crime, Michael Linehan who had always been a fixture in the short films was well versed in writing screenplays, that coupled with my laziness and ear for a good story, was the basis for many meetings where we would take an idea and expand on it.
Initially, the story was just about a paroled man dealing with the guilt of killing a child accidentally until we researched and discovered that this would not warrant a custodial sentence, there would need to be intent, or, if the person was under the influence, in which case it would be a case of dangerous driving causing death.
We learned a lot while researching the ins and outs of laws, well, laws pertaining to our story but that was great – we could now embellish, add layers to the story and lead character, we discovered as we wrote, I say we, meaning Michael wrote while I scratched my chin and said “no” a lot. Writing actually became very easy due to the central complex scenario, ie. a man goes to jail for having contraband in his car; contraband was discovered during a garda search of the car; car was involved in a fatal accident; driver had just received some very bad news, and was not aware that the contraband was in the car. That set-up alone allowed us to introduce the satellite characters, which adds even more complexity yet still keeps the central idea as its driving force, a man dealing with an unforgivable crime.
I knew from the start that Penitent was going to be bleak with a no hope ending, I didn’t shy away from this because I know there are people living who have had to deal with this very situation and I feel it’s important to show how helpless and hopeless a person finding him or herself in this predicament will feel.
Script finished, I begin the task of breaking it down into scenes for budget requirements, I don’t know any producers so I have to do it myself. Script broken down, big excel sheet with all the requirements complete, I start making the phone calls, emails, letter writing to get locations, crew, services, stuff in general. Then I cast, After years of making short films, I tend to stay with people I like, added to that, I will approach actors that I have just seen in a play and ask if they would test for a role.
Cast and crew in place, locations acquired, shootings begins on January 30th 2016. It would continue until March 2017 and I’m editing as I go. I like to edit early on in case I want to do a re-shoot, which happens a few times. The biggest concern is continuity – a shoot over that length of time will be a nightmare, but, if I shoot all scenes with satellite characters in one go, it will only leave the central character to worry about. Michael, who plays the lead in the film, was very diligent with hair/beard growth, what clothes he wore for what scenes – another good reason to edit as you go, Michael can see what he was wearing in a scene leading to current scene.
Guerrilla-style would be an understatement. We shot the lead character in prison (Spike Island) while tour guides brought visitors into the cell we were shooting in. On two separate shoots, members of the public tried to intervene in the action that was being filmed, an off-duty doctor pulled her car in during the filming of the car accident scene and rushed over to the actor playing one of the paramedics, while a scene where one actor was hitting another actor saw a passerby trying to stop the fight despite multiple cameras and sound equipment highly visible. I had a gut feeling we were getting good footage!
We had a screening for cast and crew and their reactions said it all. They hadn’t expected the film to be this good – an insult and a compliment all rolled into one, but I was happy with the result. Penitent is not an easy watch by any means and whatever problems the characters are going through are still there at the end of the film. No neat bows, no answers given. Just as in life.