Linda Cullen: Co-Director of ‘The 34th’

In this podcast Sarah Cullen chats to Linda Cullen, co-director of The 34th (with Vanessa Gildea), which tells the story of the driven and dedicated people who formed Marriage Equality in Ireland, and developed it into a highly effective grassroots force with one clear goal in mind – the extension of Civil Marriage to same sex couples. Through revealing interviews and archive material, former board members and staff outline the strategising, fierce battles, sheer hard graft and personal cost of running such an all-consuming campaign.

From the KAL (Katherine Zappone & Ann Louise Gilligan) case to a YES vote on 22nd May 2015, this documentary spans a decade culminating in the 34th amendment to the Irish constitution, allowing same sex marriage.

 

Recorded by Tommy Cullen

The 34th screens at the Light House Cinema on Wednesday, 18th October at 6.30

 

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From the Archives: Interview with Albert Maysles

Albie2

The great documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, best known for Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter, died last week aged 88. In 2005 Documentary Producer and Director Vanessa Gildea interviewed him for Film Ireland.

 

As a documentarian I happily place my fate and faith in reality. It is my caretaker, the provider of subjects, themes, experiences – all endowed with the power of truth and the romance of discovery. And the closer I adhere to reality the more honest and authentic my tales. After all, knowledge of the real world is exactly what we need to better understand and therefore possibly to love one another. It’s my way of making the world a better place.’ Al Maysles.

Albert & David Maysles (1932-1987) are credited with being the creators of ‘direct cinema,’ the distinctly American version of the French ‘cinema verité’. Al Maysles and Maysles Films count over three dozen films to their credit, including Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens and the landmark Salesman, a portrait of four Irish American door-to-door Bible salesmen from Boston regarded by many as the classic American documentary.

The last time Film Ireland spoke to Albert Maysles he told me about a dream he had to sell his family home in the famous Dakota building in New York, buy a whole building in a cheaper part of town, divide it up and install his children and close friends each in an apartment there. I ask him how his dream is coming along, he tells me that they have indeed purchased a building in Harlem, and that two of his children are already living there. With an enormous childlike smile he also tells me that in a couple of days he will know whether the sale has gone through on his Dakota building home. So, dreams do come true! You would be forgiven for thinking that as one of the most famous and celebrated documentarians of all time that Albert has made his fortune through films, but not so. Albert is still a struggling filmmaker; he has many projects in pre and post production that he is trying to get money to make or to finish. Albert was honoured with a retrospective of his work at the Belfast Film Festival in April; I had the opportunity to ask him about filmmaking and his current projects in between Masterclasses and screenings.

Vanessa: The first questions I want to ask you Albert is about the Direct Cinema movement that you and your brother David pioneered in America, is it still a relevant style of documentary filmmaking? And do you still make documentaries in that style?

Albert: I think it’s very important that make a documentary, in terms of filming people’s experiences as they’re happening. Still in America we rely too much on narration and music to dramatise and give what I would call a ‘non cinematic’ style.

And you are still making films in this way?

That’s right and now even more so because we have better equipment with which to do so…

I wanted to ask you a quite personal question about your brother David, who you were very close to and was your collaborator in film. He died prematurely in 1987 which I know had a profound effect on you, was there a point after his death where you thought I don’t want to make films without him?

I never doubted my instinct to go on making films despite the loss. Susan Froemke who was working with us at that time became a replacement for David and more recently Antonio Ferrera. I haven’t been at a loss for good filmmakers to collaborate with.

Despite the current obsession with so called reality style documentaries on TV, do you think there is a current resurgence for the creative documentary, what with quite a number of documentary features getting extensive theatrical releases?

I think people aren’t exposed enough to the purer form of documentary that I would advocate. I think any attempt to get at the real thing will help to move people more in that direction. I remember when the reality shows first began; it was reported on TV with the word reality having quotation marks around it, which meant something about how it had a special attitude towards documentary filming. With the word reality in quotation marks people think that they’re getting the real thing and they’re not, that’s a dangerous thing. Just as in literature there is a move from pulp fiction to non fiction and I think it’s going to happen in film as well, it’ll become more and more an important factor in our lives.

From the early days when you made Salesman, Gimme Shelter and say Grey Gardens you funded the films yourself and exercised complete creative control, so when you were commissioned by HBO to make a series of ‘Filmmakers in Profile’ films featuring Martin Scorsese and Jane Campion to name just two, are you still afforded that level of creative and editorial control?

Well there are few places in America where you make your film the way you want and they accept that, but one of those places is HBO, and so we’ve made three films with them and I’m making a fourth one, the Gates / Christo* project and I’m glad we’re doing it with HBO. It’s always been impossible for me to get films shown on the nationwide networks ABC, CBS, NBC & CNN. So you use your judgement to exercise freedom and anyway the films shown there are so stylized. Some of the theatre owners expect you to sacrifice your own expression, so you have to fight that a lot, but then there’s DVD too as a way of exhibiting but still maintaining the freedom that you want.

At festivals and documentary forums you hear a lot about the MTV generation audience and how certain demands are made on filmmakers by funders / TV channels for a cut every seven seconds or that the subject of the film is repeated every few minutes so that people can join in viewing at any time, have you come across those restrictions at all?

I’ve never had funding from any of those places or had any of my films screened on those channels you’re talking about. So I haven’t had that problem.

Now that you have received certain awards and recognition, like Lalee’s Kin getting an Oscar nomination in 2001, and your cinematography awards etc is it easier for you to get funding to make your films?

It’s hard for me to assess that, I know that maybe 20 years ago PBS wanted to make an American Masters film about me, but when I said well I will make it, they turned that down. But now I’ve put together and am selling the idea of an autobiographical film, I’m getting very good support for that so I’m going ahead with it.

You are publicly a great advocate of the Sony PD150 and subsequently the PD170, how has the DV camera changed the way that you make films from when you shot everything on 16mm cameras with separate sound?

Well firstly if someone wants to make a documentary on film, it’s going to cost you a lot of money compared with video. To buy a proper film camera set up it would cost you $100,000 compared to the PD170 which I think you can buy for $3,000. And you have the picture and sound all in one little package and all on the one tape. Other than that you throw a tape into the camera you can film for a whole hour before you change tape again compared to film where you re-load every ten minutes. People argue with ten minutes you have to be more careful but I don’t know I think tape is better; it seems to be you have more ability in a normal situation when you turn the camera on…

I recall you telling a story about a particular time in Cuba in the sixties with Fidel Castro when you wished you’d had a DV camera to record something that happened, can you tell that story?

In 1960 when I was in Cuba, I spent whole 24 hour periods with Fidel, I remember during one of those days Fidel said this evening ‘I’m going to a reception in the Cuban embassy’ and asked would I like to come along and so indeed I took him up on that. During the course of the reception, I was standing shoulder to shoulder with him when a telegram came to him, he tore it open read it and said ‘Would you like me to translate it for you?’ And I said please? ‘Your state department has just broken off relations with Cuba.’ Well it was a situation where I couldn’t have brought my big camera, but if I’d had a small video camera that precious moment would have been caught…

Have you ever transferred any of your films to 35mm from DV, if so what kind of results did you get?

To tell you the truth I’ve only made tests and they looked fine, but that’s expensive to transfer to 35mm

I read somewhere that you believe that the human urge to reveal itself is stronger than the urge to conceal or keep secrets is. With specific relation to your ongoing Train project In Transit where people have been know to tell you and allow you to film their life stories or intimate secrets between train stops, what is it about you or your approach that makes people want to do that?

I think that unlike some, and I hope they’re in the minority, documentary filmmakers who are out to get people to prove their point. My approach is quite different, I like people and they sense that right away, the way I approach them and look at them produces a kind of trust. And also I want to do a good job at representing their lives fairly and truthfully. I would say that when documentary filmmakers don’t have that faith that what they do then isn’t very true representation of what’s going on. It’s just the fact that everybody has a point of view and that they can control that for themselves. Editing itself no matter how careful you are is a kind of manipulation, I chose editors who are very faithful to the material and I shoot it in such a way so as to render a very truthful account of what’s going on. The whole relationship is based on the kindness of strangers…

A film like Salesman which says so much about America of a certain time, but is still a film that when it screens today 40 years later still resonates so powerfully with audiences, why is it still so relevant?

Well I think that certainly in America and it’s a growing trend all over the world, even in China, buying and selling, the capitalist dream to attempt to be rich. People lose their foundations with one another because everybody is buying and selling. So that theme which was so important in Salesman is still important today and even more so maybe…

There is such heart and such melancholy in the character of Paul Brennan to which I think people will always relate to…

He was a man who like my father was in the wrong job. Paul should have been a writer and my Father instead of being a postal clerk should have been a musician.

He played the trumpet?

Yes he played the trumpet but never as an occupation.

I know that you are currently working on quite a few projects, can you tell me a bit about them?

Well I’m still trying to raise money for my Train project, the Gates/Christo and my autobiography. I’m also making one about the Dalai Lama and his visit to New York in 2003 which I need to get money to finish the editing of. Other projects have diverted my attention away from the train film but as soon as I can I will return to it because I think it has potential to be one of my best.

You started shooting the Train film as early as the sixties when you were in Russia, is that right?

Yes when I was visiting mental hospitals (Albert is a qualified psychologist and went to Russia to make a film about the state of Mental Health care there) making a film and also when travelling on motorcycles with David…

That time reminds me of a wonderful moment we captured when we went to film my mother as she was about to become the president of a local chapter of a club she belonged to. When we came to Boston and knocked on her door with the camera running. My mother pulled her hand up over the camera and on to the top of my head and turned to me and said Albie you need a haircut (laughs). At this time I think that that may be the opening of the film…

What about your Jew on Trial Film, where are you with that?

Again I’ve been working on these other projects so it’s been put on hold somewhat. There is some urgency with that film because Anti-Semitism is on the rise. There is one significant piece in that film, where it was told that Jews killed Christian children to take their blood and mix it with matzos for the Passover celebration, totally ridiculous charges that no one would begin to believe except the Hezbollah’s who come out with such stuff on satellite television.

When you say Anti-Semitism is on the rise, do you mean in America primarily?

I think in other parts of the world primarily, in the Middle East and Muslim countries, but even certainly in France and Germany and probably this Country too.

What you’re talking about there is the demonisation of one race so as to justify abusive or prejudiced behaviour…

Yes exactly, so just as some use this propaganda to propagate Anti-Semitism, a good documentary can re tell the facts of this charge that was made against the subject of my documentary. We need information that we can rely on about the real world.

I want to ask you a bit more about Going on a Lark your autobiographical film, did that idea come out of being approached about the American Masters series?

Yes, that gave me the idea and with my 50th anniversary coming up of making movies, I thought this would be a good time to look back on my life and look forward too, and an opportunity to tell people what I’m engaged with now. One of the things I do all the time which I will show in the film is that I teach people how to make documentaries; people call me and say they have an idea for a documentary but they want some clarification on how to go at it. I say come on over we’ll talk about it, some of those sessions I will be filming, sometimes the idea is so good and they need that help from a professional I’ll just go ahead and help them.

I want to ask you about an old friend of yours and someone you collaborated with on a recent project and that’s Shivaun O’Casey, who made a film about her father Sean O’Casey and I know you shot quite a lot of that for her. We spoke before about possible difficulties of making a film in the Direct Cinema style about someone who is dead, can you tell me about working on that film?

It went very well, especially the scenes where she had conversations with her Mother. It was a work of love all the way through. I had never met him, we were about to film Sean O’Casey when he died but we had gotten all this other great material with Shivaun and her Mother so it just didn’t happen. The love that the daughter had for her Mother and Father is carried all the way that film and it makes for a film that represents him so beautifully. The archival footage is so strong even though we weren’t able to actually film him we had that material which was a direct representation of his thoughts and his philosophy.

With regard to all the projects you are currently involved with, you seem to be still struggling to get money to finish them?

That’s right but you know we had a harder time in the old days. We had to go ahead and make Salesman and Grey Gardens on our own, without any support from anybody.

So is it easier now to make films like Salesman?

I think it’s somewhat easier now. But subjects like the relationship between a Mother and daughter in Grey Gardens, who’s going to put up money to make that? It’s not about politics or violence or the usual kind of topics. So far nobody has sworn, there’s been no profanity in our films and so much of the trash on television is full of that kind of stuff which I find so unattractive and unnecessary.

So you had no money in place when making Grey Gardens?

No, in fact we had a hard time distributing the film; it took twenty years before any television station would show it, it got very well shown in England. Salesman took over thirty years to be shown and these are films that are not one political persuasion or the other which could be used as a reason not to show them.

A filmmaker once remarked that to make documentaries is to take a vow of poverty (Albert laughs), that even if you have received critical acclaim or success or indeed at your level Al it doesn’t seem to make it any easier?

That’s totally true. Doesn’t make it easier in terms of sales, but it is an extremely satisfying profession. I’m so pleased with the films that we’ve made and the good things we’ve done for the people represented, who would otherwise be totally unknown. And for the public who learn so much about life around them through experiencing the things that go on in the films.

You don’t seem to ever get disillusioned Albert?

Not about that, I feel that there’s plenty out there to be represented in documentary and there’s a lot of good to be done that way. I just the got a call the other day from Yoko Ono asking me to do an essay on John as she’s been asking other people who knew him for a book. Then I thought well what about a film and so we’re going to do that too…

You made a film before with Yoko Ono when she was starting out as an artist?

That’s right one of her Happenings that I filmed. More recently just last year, she invited me to her birthday party and so I said maybe I’ll bring my video camera and that could be my gift, so she agreed to that, ended up with a 3 1/2 minute piece which was lovely.

Are you making a film about John Lennon solely?

A film of the people who knew him and who are contributing essays to the book…

The film will co-exist with the book almost?

That’s right; it should go with the book and exist as a film on its own.

Are you and Yoko Ono still good neighbours then?

Oh yes, oh yes but not for much longer… (Albert smiles).

 

Albert Maysles, documentary filmmaker, born 26th November 1926; died 5th March 2015

 

This interview originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 104, 2005

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From the Archive: Lenny Abrahamson

Frank

With the news that Lenny Abrahamson’s much anticipated Frank has been selected to screen as part of the Premiere’s section at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, we publish online Ross Whitaker’s interview with Lenny Abrahamson, which appeared in Film Ireland magazine earlier this year.

Read on to find out about Abrahamson’s evolution as a filmmaker and his latest film Frank.

 

What Richard Did, Lenny Abrahamson’s new film, fully five weeks into its theatrical run in the Screen Cinema in Dublin and was surprised to find a packed house.

It’s so rare these days to see a film run and run but word of mouth had propelled Richard forward week after week and punters were still going in their droves long after the initial release. The film had touched a nerve and there’s something about the intergenerational dilemmas of the film that confronts all members of the audience regardless of age.

Abrahamson expertly drops us into the world of Richard Karlsen – his rugby buddies, pretty girlfriend and loving family – before his perfect existence is ruptured by one out-of-character but violent act. As a viewer, I was so enthralled by the drama that I could have sat there for many more hours in this world, so the ending was like being woken from a sleep.

The reaction in the cinema was astonishing. There was a palpable tension in the room, a silence, and as the credits rolled a spat in the cinema began between an older woman sitting behind us and a group of south Dublin teenagers on the other side of the room. There were shouts and jeers.

They had seen the same film but had experienced the world they encountered from two different perspectives but rather than exit normally they felt the need to act and react. The film had pushed them to the edge and they couldn’t leave quietly.

Abrahamson does endings well. All three of his films engage the audience but also leave them with plenty to think about. It’s a powerful mix that challenges us and is an antidote to mainstream Hollywood fare. He’s not afraid to leave a few loose ends.

Now that he has made three films, it’s fascinating to look at his body of work. He has convincingly made films about very different worlds; in these worlds, he presents powerful archetypes with great sensitivity, managing to avoid the stereotypes that we encounter too often in film. I put it to him that he perhaps has a variant on the bullshit-ometer, a kind of instinctive cliché-ometer.

‘I’ve had that from the very beginning. I used to talk about off-the-shelf scenes and you see that all the time in films – you feel that you’ve seen the same scene a thousand times with a slight variation. It’s not always bad. You can use patterns very creatively and, for example, the Coen brothers often play with scene shapes and always find something interesting to do with them. I think even before I made a film it struck me how different real life is from what you see in films, how different having a real conversation is from the standard shots you see in films. It comes down to that, how you temper the dramatic with the banal and yet you owe it to the audience to try to engage their interest; to me that’s the greatest challenge.’

His films are consistently minimalist and never outstay their welcome. They have a starkness, a distinctive style and yet they manage to avoid alienating the audience.

‘I think those things can go hand in hand but it’s important not to be patronizing towards the audience, to say, “well I’d like to do something more adventurous but the audience would never understand it.” I want to communicate so I make work for myself but I also think of my work as something that is going to be watched. I think about it as an object, that is flowing, that I can shape and has a pattern and I want it to be balanced and interesting and my faith really is that they will be the same for anyone else that watches it. At the same time, it’s not like I have a massive audience compared to something like The Guard. I don’t have a magic formula but I don’t technically separate myself from the audience; I want their experience of the film to be along similar lines to my own experience. I was really surprised by the reception of What Richard Did because I thought of my three films is was the most challenging in a way and I was really quite surprised that it took off.’

While they could hardly be called blockbusters, all three of Abrahamson’s films have done well at the box office. It can be said sometimes that Irish audiences don’t want to attend Irish films, particularly more challenging work, but the success of his films gives lie to that assertion. His style is distinctive – not what most would consider commercial – and there is a consistency of approach across his work. This isn’t, he says, something that he set out to do.

‘There was no kind of plan really. One of the interesting things for me was that despite the fact that I didn’t work with Mark [O’Halloran, writer of Garage and Adam & Paul] this time, What Richard Did still felt so much like one of my films. With this film I tried to do what I always do, which was to immerse myself in a world and in a central character and take that as a starting point and then, along with the screenwriter Malcolm Campbell, let my impulses direct me.

‘I think what I bring to my work is a certain kind of non-sentimental empathy. I can find the human dimension in the central character. I had done that with characters that had been reviled or dismissed in my previous films but with Richard you had a guy who was at the opposite end of the social spectrum. What I’m interested in is how easily we like to stereotype people and caricature them, so in that sense there is a continuity to the three films. If I consistently approach characters like that then that’s the flavour that carries from film to film.’

So, does he have a system or approach that he employs with drawing his characters?

‘It’s really just through my own mulling and pondering that I feel myself getting closer to the character and then in the case of What Richard Did it was casting a character and then building the film around that person. I hadn’t done that before and we did a lot of reworking of the script from talking to the actors to try to make it feel more real.

‘What I did on What Richard Did was a little different to what I had done on previous films in that I was consciously going for something a bit more immediately real or more overtly natural. To achieve that, I wanted to immerse myself in a literal way in those characters and that’s why we cast the film so early. It was too long since I had been in that world and this film was different from the other two in that the other characters were less overtly archetypal, they were greyer characters. So we cast it early and we spent time having conversations with the characters but not improv. Having those conversations made me feel confident that we weren’t just making it up.’

All of his films feel like very complete, confident works and I wonder does he feel that he is evolving as a director?

‘I worked in different ways on What Richard Did than I had in the past. I did much more work with the actors in particular, including a little bit of improv in the film though I’m generally quite careful about improv. I think it almost never works unless it is used very carefully and usually in advance. We didn’t just say, “we’re in a room, start talking,” we knew what they were going to talk about in, for example, that scene the night after the pub. We had done it lots and lots in rehearsal and they became fluent at being in the moment but also managing it, some part of the film being outside of them, and knowing where the scene should go. It wasn’t that kind of unstructured improv that sometimes isn’t so good.’

With three strong films under his belt, Abrahamson feels that he has developed as a filmmaker.

‘I think I was much more confident in this film about throwing stuff away on the day and changing it and rewriting with actors on the day. I was confident enough to be able to say, ‘this isn’t working, let’s try it a different way,’ so being responsive but still being fast enough to stay in the schedule. Those are really practical things that you gain through experience and confidence. I’ve gotten better at working with a tight budget and a tight schedule. I’d like to not have to do it but it’s important to be able to do it.

‘I had done a lot of commercials before I did my first film but at the very beginning so much of your energy is directed internally at your own anxiety and worrying about how it will work, how you’re being perceived and whether you’re any good. Those kinds of things don’t go away at all but getting to the point where you can actually focus on what you’re doing and not the peripheral elements is a really great thing. I think as well there is an energy on set and there is a lot at stake and the pressure that comes from having limited money and many people to manage and it’s very easy for that to turn into panic and the wheels can come off very easily. If the director can be calm and confident then that just allows the energy to be directed in a constructive way.’

His next film, Frank, is a comedy set mostly in the United States about a young wannabe musician, Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who discovers he has bitten off more than he can chew when he joins an eccentric pop band led by the mysterious and enigmatic Frank (Michael Fassbender) and also stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Scoot McNairy. However, he explains that this doesn’t mean he is leaving his roots behind.

‘A lot of the film does happen in Ireland, so there is a connection to home but its origin and its ultimate place isn’t Irish. I’ve been involved in it for a couple of years and I’ve moved it very much towards what I want it to be. It feels like a film of mine. I’ve always had an interest in a certain kind of comedy, traditional slapstick but in a very arty form. Kaurismäki is a very big influence on me and Frank plays to that element of my style. It’s a much more expansive, much more playful film. It’s different because it’s a comedy and nobody dies at the end but it’s still a left-field, stylized film. If I had an overall plan it would be to continue making the films I’ve been making here in Ireland but also to sometimes do other things as well and some bigger projects. I want to keep making films here and I don’t want to make them too much bigger because part of the pleasure of doing films here in my own country is that I don’t have to compromise too much.’

 

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland magazine, Issue 144, Spring 2013

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From the Archive: Lens Flair – an interview with Director of Photography PJ Dillon

 

 

 

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pic: molodist.com

PJ Dillon is one of Ireland’s most respected cinematographers. His long list of impressive credits includes his work on Vikings, Ripper Street, My Brothers, Kings, The Runway, Rewind – his directorial debut and Earthbound, Alan Brennan’s Irish sci-fi comedy, which opened in Irish cinemas earlier this year. Dillon has just been nominated for Best Cinematography in Television Drama by the British Society of Cinematographers. Steven Galvin caught up with PJ Dillon to discuss his craft and his work on Earthbound.

 

 

Can you tell us a little about your introduction to the film business?

 

I graduated from DIT in 1989. I’m from Listowel in Kerry and fortuitously at that time Jim Sheridan was making The Field. John B Keane was my neighbour and he knew what I was studying in college and trying to get a break into the film industry. He came over to me one evening and told me about The Field and said, ‘Do you want me to see if I can get you a job?’ Of course! So he took me to meet Jim Sheridan on a recce and I got a job as a trainee clapper-loader on the second unit.

 

It was always my intention to be a cinematographer – when we were making films in college I always gravitated towards being a cameraman and that side of things. After college I tried all the usual routes and getting onto sets pestering cameramen and production managers but had no success at all, but there weren’t actually that many films being made at the time – maybe two or three a year at that time. The other way into the business was to work on commercials. But at that time it was inconceivable that you would come out of college and start working as a cameraman. Back then you had to go through the hierarchy of starting as a trainee clapper loader, becoming a clapper loader; then a focus puller and a camera operator and then after you’d gone through all the levels eventually a cinematographer.

 

Which I presume is a great learning curve?

 

Yes – a fantastic learning curve. Even today it stands to me. It gives you a real appreciation of the difficulty in other people’s jobs. And standing on set seeing other people solve problems is a great way to learn how to solve problems! And of course there’re times when you’re looking at people working and you say, ‘Well I’m never going to do it like that!’ It can work both ways.

 

Which also feeds into an understanding of the collective nature of filmmaking itself.

 

Absolutely. And it is completely a collective, collaborative effort. It is one industry where if you isolate yourself you won’t do very well. Your work will be better the more inclusive you are in the film industry.

 

What was it that attracted you to cinematography in particular?

 

Probably like everyone else I went into college thinking I wanted to be a director. While there, I got my first experience of actually working with film cameras, shooting film, and the whole process of actually exposing film, watching it in a screening room was completely magical to me. And I thought ‘this is it for me. I’m not going to find anything better than this.’

 

So the technical, practical side fascinated you?

 

Well, yes – and it was being able to use the technical practical tools in an aesthetic way. I remember we’d shoot our own college films on 16mm and of course we’d be delighted we made this but then I’d go to see films in the cinema of artists at the top of their game and I’d be thinking ‘how did they make it look like that?’ And as you get better and start to achieve that, there’s a real thrill and something deeply satisfying about it.

 

And I presume that would still be a part of the way you work as a cinematographer – figuring out how you achieve a certain look, like a puzzle. There’s a script there, there’s an idea there, and you have to work out how to get what you and a director want.

 

Absolutely. For me, references play a huge part in any discussion I have with a director. Once I read a script and get a feel for what it’s about, the next step is to talk to the director and what can they compare it to and what are their references. The references might not necessarily be films; they may be photographs or paintings – it can be quite abstract. But they’re about tone and mood and emotion and all of those things that go into getting what you want.  It’s not that you’re not trying to copy something else but more about the feel of it. So yes, looking at other people’s work and asking how they achieved that.

 

You’ve recently worked on Ripper Street and Game of Thrones. How does working for television differ from film?

 

There are differences. With Game of Thrones the budget is 7 or 8 million an episode and, funnily enough, you probably have more money and more time than you would shooting a low-budget feature. But generally shooting a film is quite different in that you do have more time. I think TV is very much story-orientated; it’s about getting into scenes quickly and getting out quickly. Being very efficient. With films you tend to have the freedom to linger a little more. There’s more breathing space.

 

Ripper Street and Game of Thrones – they’re very stylized and there’s obviously a certain look that has to be adhered to. How does that work across a series with different DOPs?

 

It depends. With Game of Thrones the first DOP to shoot on it the year I worked on it was Kramer Morgenthau. And he was incredibly helpful to me, telling me what he was doing and involving me in his testing period. He wanted me to be able to continue the look that he was developing. That was particularly rewarding. But I’ve also worked on TV shows where there’s been no communication between DOPs. That can happen, sometimes, for budget or scheduling reasons. And sometimes it could be a different director with a different vision or the producers might want you to disregard what’s come before.

 

Moving on to Earthbound. How did you originally get involved?

 

Alan [Brennan, director] and Heidi [Madsen, producer] rang me out of the blue. They handed me a script. I read it. I thought it was really funny and quirky. I met the two of them, liked them and agreed to do it.

 

And working with Alan?

 

It was Alan’s first feature so it was quite daunting for him, but he met it brilliantly. I thought he was inventive and temperamentally just great. Alan has great quirky ideas and he did a great job executing them, particularly working with a limited budget and schedule – it was a 4-week shoot. Alan had a clear idea what he wanted and the kind of films he liked. In this case there were a lot of comic book references we discussed to capture the mood of the film. It was great fun to do.

 

Can you tell us a bit about the format you used?

 

We shot anamorphic. We were shooting on RED with anamorphic lenses for widescreen. And that was for two reasons really – Alan wanted to get that ’70s American sci-fi feel. Also anamorphic is used in a lot of major action movies. It’s got a very particular look – that widescreen look. What anamorphic lenses do is they squeeze the image, which is then unsqueezed again when you project. They have some very particular characteristics which viewers might not be aware of but subliminally the anamorphic lenses are working in a particular way that give you that epic widescreen Hollywood look.

 

The other thing about them is that they have a characteristic where they flare in a different way to standard lenses – that blue flare you get when for example headlights are on screen – that’s a classic artifact of anamorphic lenses. That’s what Alan was looking for.

 

Obviously, there’s much debate at the minute about the digital revolution in filmmaking. What’s your own preference – shooting on film or digital?

 

If I’m to be brutally honest, my preference would be to shoot on film, though the choice very much depends on the specific project and I’m quite happy shooting on digital formats. Certainly there’s greater immediacy with digital – you’re now shooting on high-definition formats and viewing on hi-def monitors on screen. Pretty much what you see is what you get – though obviously there’s a certain amount of grading that goes on afterwards and so on – but that was not the case on film. On film what you were looking at was a video tap – the on-board monitor. You weren’t looking at the end product. That immediacy appeals to directors and producers because they really know what they’re getting.

 

As good as the Arri Alexa is, which would be my personal favourite of all the digital formats, I still don’t think they have the subtlety that film can achieve. However that gap has closed radically even in the last three or four years.

 

You used the Arri Alexa on Ripper and Game of Thrones.  What is it about it that you prefer?

 

I think it has a greater dynamic range and the camera themselves feel more film intuitive. If you’ve come from a film background, the Alexa just feels more like a film camera.

 

Do you have any particular advice for someone looking to get started in the business?

 

Persevere. It’s funny; some people have it as a life ambition while others just seem to fall into it by accident. But what I would say to people who want to be DOPs is ‘shoot’ – just go out and shoot. If no one’s asking you to shoot for them, generate stuff yourself. The technology is really affordable now. When I started you couldn’t just go out and shoot because a roll of film cost 100 pounds and you’d have to rent a 16mm camera and you’d have to process it. To shoot something was an expensive thing to do. That’s not the case anymore. Anyone who’s serious can get the money together, get their hands on a decent inexpensive camera and start learning to shoot! Shoot as much as you can. That’s one of the reason Filmbase was founded – to make filmmaking accessible and that is even more so the case now. Technology is getting cheaper all the time. And getting better.

 

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland magazine, Issue 143, 2013

 

 

 

 

 

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From the Archive: From the Biscuit Tin to the Big Screen

Horgan Collection - Cork v CMYK

Once home movies and now national treasures, Tony Tracy takes us through some vintage homemade cinema from the Irish Film Archive.

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 135, 2010

Considered until recently amongst the most personal and ephemeral forms of moving picture production, home movies are experiencing a burst of institutional recognition and appreciation as artefacts of wider cultural value. Festivals celebrating ‘orphan films’ in the late 1990s began this rediscovery followed by the tentative reflections of film archivists – largely descriptive – on home movie materials found in their collections. A similarly inspired, though more academic, joint project between the IFA Irish Film Archive (IFA) and University College Cork –Capturing the Nation – gave rise to the recent Home Movie Heritage Day at the IFI as part of Heritage Week 2010.

A selection of the IFA’s holdings were screened from five collections (material from a single donor or source), each prefaced by an introduction from a person related to either the shooting or preservation of the collection before it was lodged with the archive; what might be termed its ‘biscuit tin’ phase.

Actuality film


The Horgan Collection (1910–1920) must count amongst the nation’s cultural treasures. Actuality film is a non-fiction film genre that uses footage of real events yet is not structured into a larger argument like a documentary. Contemporaries of the Lumière brothers, John and Edward Horgan’s earliest images resemble the iconic actualities of the French pioneers of moving pictures. Made in their native Youghal, Co. Cork, their early films are local actualities comparable to canonical films like Train Arriving (L’arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat) and Workers Leaving the Factory (La sortie des usines Lumière). Like those films, they are not technically ‘home movies’ but small gauge films made for paying audiences, usually screened as part of a variety show. Clearly inspired by the Lumière’s examples they share formal similarities in their static framing of crowds moving frenetically around the camera like the unaware specimens of scientific observation, save for the occasional young boy who has spotted the camera and feels compelled to interrupt the illusion of invisible observers.

One early film is notable for the variety of headgear worn by the crowds, a lost fashion custom that provides a useful index of social class and function. We see men in top hats and neat formal suits, in sailor’s caps and garb, humble caps and women in broad hats and shawls. It is a fascinating window on a disappeared world. If the future direction of cinema, as has sometimes been suggested, was a duel between the literal tendencies of the Lumières and the dreamlike impulses of their neighbour and competitor Georges Méliès then the Horgan brothers sought to include both. Also screened was a tantalizingly short extract of a film that animated the clock tower in Cobh and moved it around the main street in the style of a Méliès trick film.

The films of the Egan family (the selection dated from 1937–1943) are precisely what the term ‘home movies’ summons up. In her touching and affectionate introduction Valerie McCarthy spoke of her father as ‘a wonderful man’ and his pride and love for his home and family is palpable in the films he left them. They depict an idyllic middle class family life of happy children in happy surroundings; there is wonderful colour footage, for instance, of a young girl chasing geese in a farmyard that evokes the imperishable innocence of childhood innocence as well as the gaze of a doting father.

The gaze was not all male, however. The films of Margaret Currivan included footage of her daughter Helen’s communion in the 1960s. As with all her films screened, there was a cinematic sensibility at work that went beyond mere ‘recording’. The short film intercut images of the Holy Communion event with more abstract footage shot separately to communicate the mystery and iconography of the sacrament. Here was a fascinating attempt to not only document the externalities of this right of passage but to interweave an interpretative framework of reference that, in hindsight, tells us much about Catholic spirituality of the period.

Catholic viewpoint

This was not the only footage interpolated by a Catholic viewpoint. Irene Devitt deposited the film collection of her late uncle Fr Jack Delaney with the archive in the 1990s. In introducing extracts she recalled childhood holidays where she and her sister travelled from the Navan Road (where they lived) across the city to his house in Dun Laoghaire.

Fr Delaney’s footage was perhaps the most poignant of the afternoon and an explanation of why this is would require a social history of modern Ireland. Along with footage of his family, Fr Delaney had a notable interest in filming the marginal figures of Irish society – the impoverished ‘working classes’ walking through streets and inner city laneways, poor children playing amongst city rubble, a Corpus Christi parade utterly unimaginable today and an ‘open day’ for the girls of the notorious Magdalene laundry – in this instance the ‘Gloucester Diamond’ laundry on Dublin’s Sean Mac Dermott Street, which Irene recalled being brought along to as a young girl. The unique status of this last footage has led to it being used frequently by chroniclers of the dark history of institutional abuse: States of Fear, Sex in a Cold Climate and elsewhere. The images here are haunting because of what we now know; not so much for what they show as what they conceal. A slow panning shot across the happy faces of these young women gives them a humanity no amount of reports will, and complicates our response as only the photographic image can. Who are they? What ‘sins’ did they commit? Their happiness is troubling because we distrust its status and consequently become retrospectively implicated in their incarceration.

Formally, Fr Delaney’s footage seems rather conventional with a preference for assembling a line of people and having them march towards the camera. But this repeated choreographing has an unexpected resonance as the gaze of successive groups who have been beyond the boundaries of ‘official’ history – written and visual – confront the gaze of the modern viewer. This is especially true of the ‘Magdalene sisters’ but it is also true of Dublin’s poor, revealed in a shockingly fresh and intimate manner that recalls Roberto Rossellini’s groundbreaking post-war films Rome, Open City and Germany Year Zero. Given that this footage was made in the 1950s one wonders if Fr Delaney saw those films. These images of Ireland’s ‘ordinary people’ make one long for what might have been – a neo-realist inspired Irish cinema movement in the ’40s, ’50s or ’60s that drew on Rossellini’s Christian humanism. A real sense of solidarity and shared humanity emanates from Fr Delaney’s moving pictures, a welcome contrast to the increasingly common consensus of the Catholic Church as devoid of empathy and interest in the poor.

Flying saucers

Reflecting a more privileged social background, Mark Leslie introduced an edited version of one of his well-known family’s cherished home movies. Them in The Thing is a sci-fi pastiche from 1955 made by his father Desmond Leslie (author of the best-selling Flying Saucers have Landed). Inspired by the contemporary craze for ufos, the Leslie film not only reflected cold war paranoia and the reach of American popular culture but offered an insight into Irish cultural diversity during the ‘hungry ’50s’. Filmed in colour around Castle Leslie in Monaghan, the film offered us a cosmopolitan corner of Ireland where, in contrast to mass emigration that dominated the daily lives of many, an imaginative and bohemian Anglo-Irish family amused themselves with genre spoof featuring family friend Sir Patrick Moore. Them in The Thing – sadly missing its pioneering electronic soundtrack – is part of the Leslie family archive of home movies which would, should they be screened more widely, complicate and enliven histories of post-war Ireland.

Apocalypse then

Michael Coyle’s films of the Vietnam conflict in 1967 stretch the terms of ‘home movies’ to encompass amateur footage of an Irishman fighting in an American war in Asia. Given such exotic provenance it was ironic to discover that this footage was perhaps the least surprising of the afternoon. Coyle’s personal story is a fascinating one and we shared his regret that so much footage he shot was lost as he scrambled to escape burning tanks. What remains seems familiar from Apocalypse Now and its descendents; a sense intensified by the use of The Doors on the soundtrack (introduced by IFA for this presentation), which had the effect of flattening the images. This was a pity because beyond such surface familiarity there is material that augments and diverges from Hollywood imagery. The footage is clearly made from within the conflict; his fellow soldiers remain undisturbed and natural as they roll through the Vietnamese jungle in tanks and armoured carriers. There are surprising shots of the young American soldiers posing with friendly Vietnamese families and truly exotic footage of an indigenous tribe – the women topless, men in loincloths, returning the baffled gaze of the passing ‘foreigners’.

In his opening remarks at the event, Ryan Tubridy described the makers of the home movies as ‘historians’. Are they? If the ‘making’ of history is the analysis and interpretation of primary sources then some of the filmmakers, by virtue of selection, point of view and editing are comparable with the traditional historian. Most, however, simply point their camera and shoot. But – as was evident from the IFA event – what they shoot is widely varied: birthday parties, communions, parades, local events, faux-narratives, foreign wars – ordinary people in ordinary and sometimes extraordinary circumstances. Perhaps what this question of meaning poses more generally is a hermeneutic or interpretive one: how are we to understand the value of home movies? Clearly this depends, in a way that art arguably doesn’t, on the questions one poses the material, on what the viewer is looking for. What is interesting and exciting about the private films screened at the ifiis that for the most part the viewers of these films were for a long time asking relatively private questions like ‘who’s that?’, where’s that?’, when’s that?’ This came across in the short but sincere and highly personal introductions to the films, which gave them both context and great personal value – rescuing them from the ‘orphan’ category. But as such material begins to seep into the public domain (as they quite literally did in the company of strangers that afternoon) the questions, and responses, become more generalized and varied and the films yield up meanings their makers may never have imagined nor intended. It takes courage to allow home movies – capsules of private memory – enter into the collective memory. But, ultimately, both the private and public spheres are enhanced by the process.

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 135, 2010

Tony Tracy is Associate Director of the Huston School of Film and Digital Media NUI Galway

 

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From the Archive: Finding the Cinematic Story in History

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Díóg O’Connell compares Rabbit Proof Fence to The Magdalene Sisters, arguing that, in order to draw due attention to historical events, filmmakers must learn to subordinate factual accuracy to the creation of the emotional structure required by good storytelling.

People or ciphers?

In his book ‘A Whore’s Profession’, David Mamet states that “people have tried for centuries to use drama to change people’s lives, to influence, to comment, to express themselves. It doesn’t work. The only thing the dramatic form is good for is telling a story.” This statement is useful as a yardstick in measuring the differences between two recent films, coincidentally emerging from opposite sides of the world at the same time, telling similar tales but in remarkably different ways. Rabbit Proof Fence and The Magdalene Sisters are parallel films in many respects. Both take an aspect of national history and explore it through the medium of film. In each case, the historical incident is shameful and embarrassing and to many unforgivable. The circumstances that facilitated these acts of inhumanity often involved the acquiescence of most of the population in Ireland and Australia. The Magdalene Sisters is not just an indictment of the church-run institutions but of the whole society. Parents actively or through facilitation allowed their daughters be incarcerated in institutions for ‘crimes’ such as flirting, having a baby outside of wed-lock or being raped. Rabbit Proof Fence deals with a colonial mindset that allowed ‘half-caste’ aboriginal children be taken from their community in order to be trained as domestic servants for the white population. Based on social-Darwinian theories of evolution, the law that facilitated this was predicated on the notion that the aboriginal race could be ‘bred’ out in three generations.

What interests us here is not so much the similarities in terms of content, but more the differences in terms of form and how that subject matter is dealt with in terms of ‘story’. It is at the level of storytelling that these films diverge. In dealing with real life historical events, the narratives constructed to tell the stories are quite distinct. The Magdalene Sisters tells an episodic tale of life in an institution in 1960’s Ireland. The film opens with one of the most memorable scenes of Irish cinema in recent years when Margaret’s story is introduced. The drama of the event is conveyed through a series of looks and a powerful soundtrack, creating early expectations of an important cinematic experience.

The film is structured around the story of three girls, Margaret, Rose and Bernadette, who were sent to a Magdalene Laundry in 1964, a tragic tale of stolen years. While the title suggests some relationship among the characters, this is never fleshed out, either as allies, friends or symbolic sisters. Instead of giving the actors complex characterization to explore, the narrative presents action sequences for the characters to play out. To borrow a term from narratology, these characters are externally focalized. Because the audience rarely glimpses their story from an internally focalized position, or from the characters’ own point of view, the story experience is kept to the surface. The audience’s encounter, therefore, of this film is to view the characters’ lives from a distance. The only possibility for connection with the characters is as cyphers that represent the social injustice and cruelty of the time. What this requires is not emotional involvement but intellectual engagement. This goes some way in explaining the acceptance that these characters bring to their situation as being anti-heroic. However, this resignation, while it may be true to life for some, is not what the dramatic structure requires for telling a story. Although Bernadette’s character is set up to rebel, the fight is half-hearted and she eventually gives in.

While it may be argued that this is the experience in such institutions and that the film is therefore more ‘truthful’, it can equally be argued that not every aborigine that was taken away from their community escaped and walked a distance of 1200 miles home. But by telling this story, Rabbit Proof Fence does justice to the historical story while getting across all the attached emotional baggage that such historical incidents inevitably arouse. It takes an historical incident and creates a story world that mixes fact and fiction in a filmic way. Consequently, this film generated far more discussion and debate in Australia than its Irish counterpart did in Ireland. Despite the subject matter of The Magdalene Sisters, it failed to arouse a response or debate in the public domain.

(Re)creating the world

The Magdalene Sisters is a film that is episodic in style and littered with statements. The nun counting her money and the nuns eating a ‘full Irish breakfast’ behind a lattice-like partition while the girls make do with bread and water are scenes that display the injustices and double-standards of the church that an Irish audience is no longer surprised at. In terms of the overall narrative, however there is no progression acted out in this film. A series of episodes strung together displays an anger that is very real and valid as revelation after revelation is made in Ireland with regard to the past. But in terms of the film, this structure hinders the story by allowing it to degenerate into farce at one level (in the out-door Mass scene) and implausibility, at another level, when the two remaining characters, Bernadette and Rose, finally decide to escape.

Because the characters do not serve any distinct or key role within the story world of the film, the focus of responsibility and blame is sometimes blurred. It is difficult not to see Margaret as in some way culpable of hastening Crispina’s journey to the ‘lunatic asylum’, thus presenting a narrative glitch that leaves a very uneasy feeling in the viewer. If it was the intention of director Peter Mullan to set up a link to the ‘culpability of insiders’ convention in many films dealing with the Jewish experience in German concentration camps during the Second World War, then this intention would only succeed in further removing us from the emotional realm: inter-textual inferences demand intellectual engagement of a sort that is in stark contrast the contained emotional storyworld of Rabbit Proof Fence.

Rabbit Proof Fence is the story of one girl’s determination to go home; not to be subjected to a fate decided by outside forces. This film uses the medium to convey a tale of epic proportions, survival against the odds, triumph in the face of adversity. It does so in a uniquely understated narrative style. It is not a mainstream, classical narrative in the Hollywood sense. It eschews plot points and act breaks yet it is conventional in the sense of a linear progression and by remaining focussed on cause and effect. It creates a storyworld that is hermetically sealed and therefore true to itself.

Whereas the characters in The Magdalene Sisters are externally focalized, not driven by any inner feeling, and do little about their circumstances until the plot needs to be wound up at the end of the film, the main character in Rabbit Proof Fence is consistent from the beginning. She is driven by her deep, inner emotions (like great classical rather than postmodern characters) and acts out of a personal need that is stronger than any outside force. Molly’s character is built and focussed as the audience gets to know her complexity at each stage of the narrative: her courage and intelligence. She displays a dogged determination in contrast to the fatalism of the Irish characters that are powerless in the face of the ideological state apparatus. Interestingly, in The Magdalene Sisters, it is Crispina who displays the greatest complexity; but she is not one of the central characters.

The Magdalene Sisters’ narrative progresses in a straight line. The events are used to convey details of a story that does not present any surprises, suspense or conflict whereas the narrative in Rabbit Proof Fence brings the audience along while submerging them more deeply at each key stage. Through the use of cinematic devices, the alien environment that is Moore River is evoked through internal focalization. Molly looks up at Mr. Neville, Chief Protector and the audience is given her point of view. While Olive’s recapture is used in Rabbit Proof Fence as motivation to escape, driving the main character in a heroic way; in The Magdalene Sisters Una’s return is what makes Margaret change her mind, as she fatalistically climbs back into bed. While this may be more in keeping with the ideological critique of the myth of heroic action, it contravenes the expectations of the universal story whereby the audience is brought out of ‘reality’ to another world, the world of the story.

The cinematography reveals what Molly ‘sees and hears’ in Rabbit Proof Fence, how she accumulates information and acts on it to achieve her journey’s end. The landscape plays its part narratively, the fence poetically linking Molly to her mother at key moments while the soundtrack is central to conjuring up the aboriginal world. Each sequence is linked aesthetically by scenes of landscape giving this film a visual evenness that is absent in The Magdalene Sisters. Margaret’s opportunity to escape is rejected when she returns voluntarily to the institution. Unlike Molly she is trapped by her trepidation, and what has now become an alien environment, the outside world. Whereas hope drives Molly, fear drives her Irish opposites.

Rabbit Proof Fence tells of a collective experience through the tale of one character yet it is not hindered by sticking rigidly to every historical detail. The Magdalene Sisters expresses many historical details (that are undoubtedly true) but by shunning the narrative device of following the path of a defined storyline it fails to convey a sense of ‘truth’ with regard to its subject matter and ultimately does a disservice to the tale.

Both films present very different experiences for the viewer. Rabbit Proof Fence tells a classic story of survival and triumph in a universal way. It tells of an Odysseus-like character that draws on key human characteristics of determination and will in order to embark on a near impossible journey. While one film clearly engages on an emotional level, the other keeps the viewer at arm’s length, inviting intellectual engagement in parts. The audience response of laughter to many scenes in The Magdalene Sisters might suggest that these stories are still too raw for Irish audiences to engage with at any deep emotional level. These films thus support the position that history is a good place for fact, detail and argument whereas drama, as Mamet states, is a domain for recounting a story. Both disciplines serve separate functions for a nation to recount and explore aspects of its past.

What is interesting about these films is that they both enjoyed commercial success and relatively long box-office runs; in terms of recent Irish cinema, The Magdalene Sisters was significantly more commercially successful than most other Irish films. On the other hand, as a record of an historical event and an expression of the human spirit, it is clear which film will resonate. By telling a story, the purpose of the dramatic form, and creating such a distinctive storyworld, the spirit of Rabbit Proof Fence will linger long after the memory of The Magdalene Sisters has vanished.

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 92, 2003

Díóg O’Connell is a lecturer in Film & Media Studies at IADT, Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin. She completed her PhD in 2005 entitled ‘Narrative Strategies in Contemporary Irish Cinema 1993-2003’ and has published articles and critical reviews on this period. Her book, New Irish Storytellers: Narrative Strategies in Film is published by Intellect, 2010.

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From the Archive: Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins: A Look at Bernard Herrmann

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His career bridged Welles and Scorsese, taking in Hitchcock, Truffaut, and DePalma along the way. Lir Mac Cárthaigh explores the life and work Bernard Herrmann, one of the greatest film composers of all time.

Collaboration often produces the greatest works of art. Sometimes the interaction between creative minds results in a work which neither would have been capable of alone. Unfortunately it is often easier to ascribe great works of collaboration to a single author; we bury Fletcher beneath Shakespeare, Macquet beneath Dumas, Lish beneath Carver. Today, when we listen to a minister’s speech or see the latest collection from a fashion designer we don’t think of the shuttered backroom where a faceless team do the work, we think only of the person who gives their official seal to it. While film is perhaps the most collaborative artform, the glory tends to accrue on the director. A mighty name like Welles, Hitchcock or Scorsese brands a film, defines it the work of an auteur, the men and women who labour in what David Thomson thoughtfully brands “the ‘subsidiary’ arts” tend to be forgotten; the writers, composers, designers and all of the other artists whose contributions can make or marr the finished work. One of the above-mentioned directors, Alfred Hitchcock, thoroughly disliked sharing credit, yet on one occasion he stated that his direction accounted for only two-thirds of a film’s impact, that for the final third he relied on the music of Bernard Herrmann.

Herrmann’s career in movies began during Hollywood’s ‘golden age’ and continued into the rise of the Vietnam generation of filmmakers. His first film score was written for Welles’s Citizen Kane, his last for Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Herrmann was a child prodigy, he won a composition prize at 13, and founded and conducted a chamber orchestra at 20. According to his daughter Dorothy, writing music came easily to Herrmann; he would start early in the day, and would often have his work finished by nine in the morning. When still in his twenties Herrmann was hired as staff conductor for CBS Radio, where he also presented Exploring Music, a programme devoted to airing unheard and underappreciated work. At CBS Hermann made the acquaintance of the airwaves’ best-known boy-wonder, Orson Welles. In his conversations with Peter Bogdanovich (later published as This Is Orson Welles) the director remembered a 1935 radio production of Hamlet which demonstrated the composer’s uneven temperament. Herrmann quarrelled with director Irving Reis seconds before the play was due to go on air, he broke his conductor’s baton and threw his script away. Welles managed to get Herrmann to go on with the show, but had no time to re-order his notes. The result was the music was one cue out through the entire performance: “We had fanfares when it was supposed to be quiet, approaching menace when it was supposed to be a gay party, and all live; it was riotous.” Welles, who liked to work with others of his generation, felt an affinity with the young composer, and Herrmann shortly became “an intimate member of the family.”

Herrmann was contracted to write the music for Welles’s first motion picture, but the project kept changing; Heart of Darkness became Smiler with a Knife, which finally gave way to Citizen Kane. The delay to production gave Herrmann time to compose his first symphony, featuring the heavy horns, prominent percussion and plucked strings which would become familiar features of his work. Herrmann’s concert pieces already included the impressive cantata ‘Moby Dick,’ whose sinister Salvation Armyish hymn presents a dark evocation of Melville’s novel. According to Welles, he and Herrmann worked “almost note for note” on the Kane score, as they had done for many years on radio. The film provided a real showcase for the talents of the young composer, as it allowed him to write in many different styles, from the Souza-esque ‘March of Time’ newsreel parody in the ‘News on the March’ sequence to the burlesque song ‘Oh, Mr. Kane,’ which Welles claims was based on a march he heard in Mexico. The highpoint of Herrmann’s score is the aria he wrote for Sallambô, the opera starring Kane’s second wife Susan Alexander. Welles told Herrmann in a telegram “here is a chance for you to do something witty and amusing,” Herrmann did so, writing the area in too high a key to show that the singer is out of her depth. The non-linear structure of Kane allowed Herrmann to flit between themes of levity and gravity; he evokes the sour dustiness of the empty Xanadu mansion with dark, doomy woodwinds, while Kane’s ebullient youth at the Examiner newspaper is recalled with giddy strings and xylophone. Herrmann was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Kane, but lost – to himself – for his score for The Devil and Daniel Webster (Aka All That Money Can Buy). The Daniel Webster score saw Herrmann return to the briny depths of his ‘Moby Dick’ cantata, using a hornpipe-flavoured melody which contrasts bright and carefree passages with moments of doom.

Herrmann continued to work with Welles on the director’s ill-starred second feature The Magnificent Ambersons. Ambersons was to be even more astonishing than Citizen Kane, but was mutilated by executives at RKO. Part of the film’s splendour was the lavish score, based around Emil Waldteufel’s waltz ‘Toujours ou jamais.’ Thirty-one minutes of Herrmann’s music was removed by the studio after they re-shot the ending; new music by RKO composer Roy Webb was substituted. When Herrmann viewed the studio’s cut of the film he insisted that his name be removed from the credits.

The mid-1940s have been referred to as Herrmann’s ‘romantic period.’ Scores from this time include landmark music for Jane Eyre, Hangover Square and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. The plot of Hangover Square involves a composer who suffers from bouts of murderous amnesia, and afforded Herrmann the opportunity to write the chilling, manic and intense piano concerto Macabre, performed by the deranged man in a burning auditorium. Herrmann’s all-time favourite score was for Joseph Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir; he told his brother Louis that the music for the film expressed his feelings better than anything he’d done before. In the film a widow falls in love with the ghost of a sea captain; Herrmann’s biographer Stephen C. Smith believes that the composer felt an affinity with the strong but lonely Mrs. Muir. Doomy woodwinds ascend, becoming strings; bright passages of piano and glockenspiel conclude in maritime bells and a harp. The dark/bright contrast used so often by Herrmann occurs as the low woodwinds and gong push their way into slow harp-led strings. An urgent, startling passage of strings foreshadow Herrmann’s work on Psycho, but are modulated here by horns, finally giving way to a thematic four-note figure played on a flute. Around this time Herrmann was working on his only opera, Wuthering Heights, with a libretto by his wife Lucille, based on Emily Brontë’s novel. The opera shares some of Mrs. Muir’s melody and, according to his daughter Dorothy, Herrmann loved to play it, considering it his masterpiece. The composer refused to make any changes to the opera, and consequently Wuthering Heights was not performed until some years after his death.

Perhaps Herrmann’s greatest claim to fame results from his collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock. Herrmann worked with Hitchcock over an eleven-year period, scoring some of the English director’s most famous films, among them The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Know Too Much and Marnie. Three of these, Vertigo, North By Northwest and Psycho featured credit sequences which married visuals by designer and animator Saul Bass with Herrmann’s music. These opening sequences are much more than a simple list of credits, instead they provide what film critic Leonard Maltin describes as an ‘overture’; a self-contained prelude to the film which gives the audience an idea of what to expect. The spiral device of Bass’s Vertigo credits is complimented by the central six-note figure that Herrmann has devised for the film. The composer passes the spiralling figure back and forth between the strings and a harp, producing a disconcerting sensation augmented by terrifying horn notes which cut across it when the titles appear on the screen. As well as displaying his talent for writing unsettling stings, Vertigo also allowed Herrmann to exercise his romantic side; his daughter Dorothy believes that her father felt an affinity with the film’s theme of romantic obsession. Scottie, the smitten hero, doesn’t speak to his inamorata Madeleine for the first half hour of the film, his feelings for her are expressed only through the music. Allowing the composer to establish the most important relationship of the film, rather than stating it directly through dialogue or voice-over, shows the trust which Hitchcock had in Herrmann at this time.

Herrmann’s most famous film score, and a good contender for most famous film score of all time, was written for Hitchcock’s Psycho. According to his daughter, the composer himself was less than enthusiastic about the film while working on it, regarding it as “a cheaply-made exploitation film.” When the film proved successful Herrmann changed his mind, and would often cite it as a favourite score. The film had a stringent budget, Hitchcock insisted on making it for under $1m; it was to be shot in black-and-white using the crew from his TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Herrmann composed the score entirely for strings, claiming that a black-and-white picture called for an equally black-and-white sound. While Herrmann wrote various fills for Psycho, they are quite minimal; the chief musical ingredient is the well-known theme which runs through the film, played on different combinations of instruments to suit the various moods. The ‘master of suspense’ became one of the first victims of the shocking music for his film; Hitch thought that a contemporary jazz score would suit the Psycho, and was keen that the composer use no music during the murder scenes. When Herrmann screened the film for him he showed him two versions, one with no music during the murders, and a second with the ‘shrieking strings’ which have become synonymous with the film. Herrmann tells how when Hitch saw the scored version he exclaimed: “‘We must have the music, of course!’ And I said, ‘But you were against it.’ And he said, ‘Oh, no. All I made was a poor suggestion.’” Herrmann went on to compose one of the oddest ever movie ‘scores’ for Hitchcock’s The Birds, an electronic collage replicating bird noises played on an electronic keyboard.

Herrmann and Hitchcock’s partnership came to an end when they quarrelled over the music for Torn Curtain. The director was working with two young stars, and was under pressure from Universal to deliver a film with a ‘happening’ score. Herrmann suggested that he was not the best person to compose the music they wanted, but the studio insisted. The musicians who recorded the score were so impressed that they applauded it; Hitchcock was not so happy. After hearing Herrmann’s work in progress he insisted that recording be stopped, even though the score had already been paid for. The music was finally composed by Briton John Addison, but Herrmann’s surviving prelude, a swooping, western-style theme foreshadowing some of John Williams’s best-known work, gives an idea of how the score could have been. Whether by coincidence or not, Herrmann’s parting from Hitchcock marked what is generally considered the end of the director’s great period.

Through his friendship with Alfred Newman, the musical director of 20th Century Fox, Herrmann came to compose a number of fantasy and science fiction scores. Descending chords and a moody organ give his music for Journey to the Centre of the Earth a suitable chthonic feel, while the eerie theremins from The Day the Earth Stood Still are used melodically, rather than to produce an ‘effect.’ According to his friends Herrmann was always challenged by writing ‘monster music.’ In order to get the desired accompaniment to a giant octopus attack in Beneath the Twelve Mile Reef, Herrmann used an orchestra featuring nine harps. Fellow composer Sir Malcom Arnold remembers asking him if the sound of nine harps was much different from that of two; Herrmann replied: “No, but I do it anyway.” The composer’s talent for scoring unusual situations was tapped by fantasy filmmaker and stop-motion legend Ray Harryhausen, with whom he worked on four films. One of the most famous moments from Harryhausen’s films was greatly enhanced by Herrmann’s music; the duel between Sinbad and the skeleton in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. Rather than settle for standard ‘dramatic music’ Herrmann used castanets and xylophones to weave a complex percussive rhythm and evoke the rattling bones of Sinbad’s skeletal opponent.

Herrmann once told Hitchcock that if he had another life to live he would like to be the landlord of an English country pub; the composer’s affection for England led him to relocate there from Hollywood in the late 1960s. He had grown disillusioned with the film business; he saw the kind of symphonic film music that he composed give way to popular music and a commercially viable soundtrack. Despite commercial pressure, creative filmmakers will always have a use for creative musicians; Francois Truffaut, familiar with Herrmann from his work with Hitchcock, had him score Farenheit 451 and The Bride Wore Black. When Herrmann asked Truffaut why he had chosen an old-timer like him rather than a young French composer Truffaut replied “they will give me the music of the 20th Century, but you can give me the music of the 21st century.”

It was not long before a new generation of American filmmakers emerged and, like Truffaut, sought out the man who had written the scores for the films they loved. When Brian DePalma was trying to attract investors for his film Sisters he assembled a sample murder sequence cut to Herrmann’s music for Psycho. It seemed logical that when the film was financed he seek out Herrmann himself to score it. DePalma’s editor Paul Hirsch describes a dishevelled Herrmann arriving in a rumpled overcoat flaked with dandruff, and with a mad gleam in his eye. His score for Sisters does not look back at Hitchcock as much as DePalma’s films do, but is flavoured by his more recent science fiction work. The romantic score for DePalma’s next film Obsession is far more reminiscent of Herrmann’s earlier work, but not without innovation, using a choir to help lift the score from its darker recesses of organ and orchestra. Paul Hirsch remembers Herrmann crying for ten minutes after a studio screening of Obsession; he tried to comfort the composer, telling him how beautiful his score was. Herrmann agreed, but told the editor “I don’t remember writing it.”

Although Herrmann’s health was beginning to fail, his spirit was never stronger. He had befriended maverick filmmaker Larry Cohen, and scored his movie It’s Alive. Composer and friend David Raskin remembers Herrmann telling him “The new guys, they want me!” Herrmann’s final score was written for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and while it uses more contemporary instrumentation, it is a score in the grand tradition of Herrmann. The soundtrack is Herrmann’s swan-song, a sinister, brooding and menacing piece of work. The main theme switches back and forth between two separate pieces; a sombre horn theme with building snare drum, and a saxophone piece reminiscent of ‘Harlem Nocturne.’ The dual nature of Travis Bickle’s theme music reflects the fractured nature of his personality and the danger which squats behind the insomnia-creased surface. Readings from Travis’s journal are accompanied by plucked double bass and horns, the sound of the city’s polluted lungs wheezing in and out. Continuing the organic feel, Herrmann provides a heartbeat drum sound when Betsy, the object of Travis’s fixation first appears by his cab. Friends of Herrmann’s suspected that knew he had little time left; he worked hard to finish the score, pushing to get it completed. According to David Raskin, all of the orchestra sessions for the film were finished, only one cue for a small jazz group remained, which was scheduled for a later date. Hermann decided at the last minute that he wanted to record it before leaving the studio. It was the 23rd of December 1975, the next day he was dead.

Herrmann was known as a somewhat difficult person, Ephraim Katz characterised him as “a pedantic autocrat and uncompromising perfectionist”, Scorsese called him “a marvellous, but crotchety old man” and Ray Harryhausen believed that his brash, cantankerous exterior hid a wonderful person. Editor Paul Hirsch remembers having dinner with a cranky Herrmann after the composer had seen a rough cut of Taxi Driver. Herrmann complained that the soup was too cold, and dismissed a fan seeking his autograph. In one of the changes of mood which seem to have been normal with Herrmann, he later gave the autograph hunter a signed copy of the first two measures of the Psycho score.

Dorothy Herrmann remembers her father bringing her to see his films at the local cinema; if the sound was too low, Herrmann would complain. At a showing of Five Fingers, the projectionist responded to the composer’s grumbling by cranking the volume up to ear-straining heights, causing the other patrons to storm out demanding a refund. Herrmann’s irascible tenacity was combined with an enormous talent, he knew when the music was right even when the director didn’t. Hitchcock complained that when you worked with composers you put yourself in their hands, that once the music has been composed it can’t be changed; sometimes this can be for the best. The trouble with an auteur like Hitchcock is his unwillingness to cede control, to trust another artist to produce something which is both meritorious in itself as well as complimentary to the movie. Herrmann’s scores are among the few that can stand on their own, detached from the scaffolding of the film they were composed for. The piano concerto Macabre from Hangover Square has been performed at concerts, and the Salammbô aria from Citizen Kane has been recorded (in the proper key) by Kiri Ti Kanawa. In February 2001 the Eos Orchestra staged a concert in New York called Bernard Herrmann: More Than the Movies, consisting of selections from Herrmann’s film scores (accompanied by projections of the relevent scenes), as well as excerpts from his favourite work the opera Wuthering Heights. Herrmann’s legacy continues a quarter century after his death, his influence can be heard in the work of many contemporary film composers; Danny Elfman’s scores for Batman and Sleepy Hollow recall Herrmann at his darkest. Herrmann’s posthumous filmography is vast, his music has been used in sequels and remakes, such as Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear and Gus Van Sant’s Psycho. The number of films which borrow from Herrmann are a lasting testimony to his influence. Unlike fellow composers Lalo Schiffrin and Henry Mancini you are unlikely to hear a Herrmann theme as a mobile phone ringtone, but his music is still reaching audiences where it was meant to be heard – in the cinema.

The Bernard Herrmann Society provides an indispensible online resource; most of the material referred to in this article is archived in its entirity at www.bernardherrmann.org

Quotations from Orson Welles are taken from This Is Orson Welles, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum and published by Harper Collins.

 

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 91, 2003

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From the Archive: Five Ways To Kill Your Script

TR_Production_Screen-Writing-150x150

 

Film Ireland gets some not-to-be-ignored advice from James Bartlett, story analyst to the Sundance Institute amongst other illustrious organisation.

 

 

Living in Hollywood and working as a script reader and story editor, I know that studios, agencies and production companies receive hundreds of scripts per day. The market in Europe may be less intense (and less well-funded), but either way, someone like me is going to be the first person to read your script.

 

Over 10 years of script reading I have noticed the same 13 mistakes appearing time and time again in scripts. These ‘red flags’ are all a reason to say ‘No’, and I devised the lecture ‘Hollywood Screenwriting: Jumping The First Hurdle’ to help writers by talking about these 13 mistakes, looking at screenwriting competitions and the industry as a whole so that they’ll have a more sellable, professional product. Whether you’re a new writer or an experienced professional, everyone makes these mistakes – believe me!

 

1. Spelling and Punctuation

It may seem obvious, but 75–80% of scripts have this problem. You call yourself a writer and want to be paid to write, yet you can’t spell? Or you don’t know the correct usage of ‘you’re’ and ‘your’ or ‘it’s’ and ‘its’? Remarkably, ‘loose’ and ‘lose’ are always incorrect, and Spell Check is simply not enough.

 

Frank is slumped on the coach, polishing off a bear. A dozen bears are strewn on the coffee table, a one man party that didn’t go so well.

The writer means a ‘beer’ of course, yet Spell Check reads ‘bear’ as a word. I’ve even read scripts where the very first word was spelled wrong! Try reading your script from the end to the beginning and keep checking, because there’s never any excuse…

 

2. Introducing Characters

When any character first appears, their name should be in CAPS (i.e. JOHN or WAITER). It should not be in caps in the scene description from then on, because IT gets REALLY hardTO READ when ALMOST every other WORD is IN CAPITAL letters, and secondly, it’s a nightmare for casting (unless you have hundreds of characters all named JOHN in your script).

 

3. Songs, Poems & Quotes

Firstly, music licensing is often complicated and expensive. Producers always cut the music budget first too, so it’s best not to keep drawing attention to it. Also, while it may seem like a good idea, what happens if the reader doesn’t know the song, doesn’t like it, or thinks it doesn’t work with the scene? Then it takes him/her out of the story, and it comes off as an attempt to manufacture emotion.

 

An opera aria plays on the car stereo: ‘Morgen!’ from Strauss’ Wesendonk Lieder WWV91.

 

The important information here is that opera is playing on the car stereo; listing the song itself is the mark of an amateur (unless of course the script is an original musical).

 

4. Prompts, Asides & Jokes To The Reader

This often manifests itself by showing knowledge of films, books, the film business, or the screenwriting process itself. Don’t ever address the reader outside the world of the story, just impress them with your characters, dialogue and narrative – that’s all they care about.

 

He is Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom, focused on his prize, moving forward despite the ghosts and ghouls lurking in the darkness, waiting for him, ready to strike.

 

The Delivery Guy leans against a hand truck and talks as if he were pontificating on Nietzsche’s theme of eternal recurrence.

 

As this happens, several people in the theatre feel great about laying down ten bucks to see this on the big screen – recession be damned!

 

His wife Kathleen pokes her head around the door and smiles. See, I told you we would see her again – and soon.

 

Her smile, the twinkle in her eyes – it’s pretty hard not to love her.

 

5. Formatting

Incorrect presentation and formatting makes your script stand out a mile – in a bad way – and though there are many differing opinions, in the US there are very, very strict industry standards.

 

Use Courier 12 font to write (no bolding , underlining, italics or colours), punch with two holes at top and bottom, and bind with brass fasteners (known as ‘brads’ for some unknown reason).

 

Some competitions even have categories for formatting, and the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting (the biggest screenwriting competition and worth entering) even has a guide (http://www.oscars.org/awards/nicholl/resources.html) so you can be sure of 10 points at least.

 

To learn about the rest of the mistakes, get some insider information and find out the positive steps that make your script a better read, come to ‘Hollywood Screenwriting: Jumping The First Hurdle’.

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 133, 2010

Currently based in Los Angeles, James Bartlett is a story analyst for the Sundance Institute, the Nicholl Fellowships, the UCLA Professional Screenwriting Program, the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards and National Geographic Films. He also reads for several UK regions, is the US consultant for Euroscript, and lectures across the UK and Ireland. He’s available for private consultation at jbartlett2000@gmail.com

James will be in Filmbase on Thursday, 7th November to deliver his Screenwriting Pitching Workshop plus a three-hour seminar: Hollywood Screenwriting: Jumping the First Hurdle

 

 

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From the Archive: What do you do with actors?

TV Drama

Illustration: Adeline Pericart

 

Actor/director Vinny Murphy talks about directing actors.

In this article, rather than give a ‘Tips for Directing Actors’ list I would like to try to take the subject seriously, just for a laugh.

As an actor, before I ever directed, I was often asked by directors for advice on directing actors. I was shocked by the questions they would ask. ‘What do you do with actors?’ they’d say. ‘I’ve heard they have their own language you have to learn,’ they’d say. A lot of these people had been to film school and some had made a few shorts already. They seemed to be dealing with some strange alien life form. I’d ask what had they done with these strange ‘others’ before: they either couldn’t remember or they said they’d done nothing – basically they didn’t know what had happened. It still holds true today that colleges spend very little, if any, time on this obviously extremely important aspect of filmmaking. It seems to be the last thing anybody making their first film ever thinks about. ‘The director got sucked into the camera’ is an old way of saying the director didn’t deal with the actors and, from what I hear and see, there are still directors getting sucked into all sorts of old and new cameras all over the country.

Why does this happen? I think the main reason is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of this ‘other.’ It’s much easier to talk to the DOP because you’re talking about tangibles.
The job of a director is so huge and so full of pressure that it’s very tempting to look for excuses when something isn’t working. It’s great, you can say ‘the actors just aren’t getting it, what’s wrong with them?’ and hey presto! If those useless actors aren’t getting it, what can you possibly do? The point is that it’s the director’s responsibility to create a situation where the actors can do their most interesting work. It’s not just when you talk to them, it’s the entire situation the actors find themselves in. If that responsibility sounds both huge and vague, then welcome to the world of film directing!

Question: How do you direct actors? Answer: ‘I don’t know.’ – Jim Sheridan

What Jim Sheridan meant was that he doesn’t have a technique that fits any situation. Every film is different, every actor has to be worked with differently. It’s much too personal an activity to be able to apply broad strokes. The worst thing an inexperienced director can have anywhere in their head is the notion: ‘They’re actors, they should be able to do anything.’

My favourite bad move by an inexperienced director is where they go over to the actor, talk at them for five minutes (or more, which is worse!) and walk away with a satisfied look as if they’ve just completed their part of the bargain and now it’s up to the actor. For a start, an actor can’t really take in that much information in one go. The actor is not looking at the script the way a director or a script editor looks at it. If I look at a script that I am about to script edit, I can read it and understand it very clearly. If I am given the same script because I’m going to be acting in the filmed version of it, that’s a horse of a different colour altogether.

When I’m script editing I’m looking for the high view – how the thing is structured, exactly what is it the writer is trying to say and how to make that clearer. The script editor has to be a bit hard-nosed about it, cold. So it may look like I’ve suddenly become stupid when I’m an actor and I’ve just been given a script. It’s not just that somewhere I’m thinking, ‘Oh shit, I have to perform this’, it’s that my entire relation to that script is different. I’m looking for clues to help with a very different process. My thinking isn’t so clear because, whether I’m aware of it or not, what I’m trying to do is to sink down into the script. I’m looking to go down south, to find the warmth of it, the moisture of it. Maybe, in a way, I have to become stupid in order to grow down into the script before I can grow up through it again.

Whatever way you look at it, when an actor is given a script, it’s a very different process to that of a director. And a director needs to be drawn in to the vortex that is the actor. How far to get drawn in depends on the job, but there has to be some drawing in going on – what else is there? So the director gets drawn in to the actor’s vortex and knows the actor is going to get drawn in to the director’s vortex. Knowing how much of this vorticity business you are up for is something you can only find out by doing it.

When it comes to directing actors, maybe it should be called indirection. If you tell an actor what to do, they will try to do what you tell them, unless they’re really good, in which case they will try to turn what you say into something they can work with. No actor can ‘do’ a direction. There is no tube through which a direction travels from the director’s head into the actor’s soul. What the director says will have to find a filter through which the actor processes the information and turns it into something which can be used. If the director gives the actor an image (in the widest sense of the word) the actor can take that and get something from it. What it is that they get and how they translate that into action is the mysterious part.

‘…psyche knows more what it wants with itself than I may be able to imagine or interpret.’ – James Hillman

The psyche of the actor knows more about what should be done with the scene than the director. So the job of the director is to access that and not engage the actor in a discussion about the craft. You’re trying to get the actor away from the craft. Instead of giving a ‘result’ direction like ‘be more angry,’ you might, for instance, ask if they’ve ever been so pissed off (try to avoid the word ‘angry’ – it has too many bad performances attached to it already) with someone that they wanted to physically hurt them. Now, hopefully a bunch of images floods into the actor’s head – not just one specific memory that they’ll re-enact, but a vortex (again) of images that will bring up physical, emotional and psychological activity relevant to the situation. Or maybe you’ll do something totally different. What matters is that you see a move in the actor’s eyes or something that indicates they’ve got something from you.

A particular actor who had a fair amount of experience was new to my classes. We did a scene where part of the exercise is that I don’t say a single word about the script and we shoot the first take. The scene was complex. It was about the character’s resentment towards his sister for not helping out in caring for their sick father, his own feelings of guilt for not doing more himself, his attempt to understand her and then his disgust when she refuses to commit to helping again. None of this was immediately apparent from reading the script and he thought it was about him flirting with her. He ‘thought’. There’s your problem right there, buddy. He read the script and then decided what he was going to do in advance. For the next take I told him to stop thinking and planning ahead. He gave the same performance again. I talked a bit more about not deciding anything and just listening to what she’s saying and to what he’s saying and to do it as if he’s no idea what’s going on and to just be open. We shot it the third time and he gave this incredibly complex, rich, moving and slightly scary performance – everyone in the room was in thrall to it. I asked what had he gone through during the take. Not what did the scene now mean or what did he ‘think’ of it but just historically, what had actually happened? In explaining, he gave a perfect account of all the complexity that was supposed to be in the scene.

What had happened? He had connected to the images that came to him and had stuck with them. Instead of drawing from the shallow well of what we can ‘think’ up he had drawn on the bottomless pit of all that’s unconscious, and that had guided him to a truly marvellous performance.

I’m not suggesting directors shouldn’t say anything to actors and then expect amazing performances, but that the actor needed to find it for himself. Otherwise he would have ended up trying to squeeze what I had told him out of the script. Squeezing a script is never a good idea. A script is supposed to set up images that get things out of the actor, it’s not for the actor to try to grab things out of the script.

In this country, like most others, actors find themselves turning up on set, maybe having done a play (which is a different discipline altogether) two months ago and a film the month before that. They turn up on set with no continuity of practice, no juices flowing, no warmth, no moisture. They’re dry, cold and fearful. And on a bad set what happens first thing? They’re told what to do. ‘You stand over there and say your first line, then go over there and sit down at that table for the rest of your lines.’ They rehearse; the director tells them that it’s not what they want. ‘Be more angry when you say that.’ They do a take. Nobody says anything – now they feel even colder than when they walked in! And then next take is bad – but of course it’s bad, how could it be good?

‘I’m gonna spend loads of time with the actors on set’ is a phrase I’ve heard an awful lot. It never happens because you can’t spend loads of time with anyone when you have a hundred things to decide, fix, oil, shape, manoeuvre and get out of the location in twenty minutes. But you have to keep the actors warm and moist! Even the biggest Hollywood stars all turn to the same place when they hear ‘cut’ – the director. That’s the only place they can find out whether they did good or bad.

A director needs to establish their own brand of relationship with actors beforehand and keep that warm by talking to them, not necessarily even about the scene. If you are talking about the scene, talk to one actor at a time – this way, you don’t end up with the actor trying to prove to the others that they can do your direction and the relationship stays intimate. Most importantly, the actors aren’t supposed to know exactly what the others are going to do anyway.

So directing actors becomes not so much about using your imagination, but keeping the imagination of your actors alive. It’s the director’s responsibility to create a situation where the actors can offer their most interesting work.  This isn’t their ‘best’ work, because it’s not about being good or bad. It’s about being either engaging and arresting or just adding to the numbness that is available on and off the screen everywhere.

 

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 132, Spring 2010

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From the Archive: Breaking (Down) the Budget

Blair-Witch-Project1

 

Low-budget can mean anything from a few hundred grand to small change and some pocket-lint. But no matter the size of your lump sum, what’s the smartest way to spend your money in low-budget filmmaking? Conor McMahon talks to directors Brian O’Toole, Paul Ward, Eoin Macken and himself…  

 

 

Budgets are strange things. From the few films I’ve produced, I’ve always found them difficult and frustrating to put together. It’s impossible to tell how much most things will cost. How do you know how much footage will be shot or how much food will be eaten? And without accurate figures, how can you ever make a definite budget? I’ve also found it odd that on bigger films a budget is put together when they don’t even know exactly how it’s going to be shot, or how the director plans on staging certain things. But in the end, a budget is something you need to get things moving, to convince people it’s possible so you can secure finance.

 

The other thing about budgets is that a lot of people won’t talk about them. They don’t want people to know how much their film cost. And it’s understandable. If you’ve made a film for 100,000 and you say it cost 500,000, chances are you’ll probably be able to sell it for more on the market. It’s often only at the very lower end of the spectrum that people will proudly declare that their film cost a week’s wages, and use that as a selling point. The zombie film Colin that was shot earlier in the year and was apparently made for £40. Another example would be of course El mariachi, which used the fact that it only cost $7000 as a selling point.

 

In the age of digital filmmaking it’s easier than ever to pick up a camera and go out a shoot a film. But how much money do you need to do it? The answer is often whatever you have and whatever you can get.

 136

Memoria

– Dir: Brian O’Toole

– Overall Budget: €25,000

– Filmed on 16 mm

 

Budget Breakdown

 

For stock we used 25 x 400ft cans at €130 a pop – €3,250. We shot on an Arriflex SR3, so equipment and lights, including a 21-day rental of an underwater camera casing – €15,000. Processing and Telecine to Digibeta (both in Lisbon, at a very, very accommodating place called Tobis) – €2,200. The remainder went on travel expenses, food and some beers. No one got paid a dime.

 

 

Do you think having more money would have helped?

 

I’m not sure it would have made much difference to the actual film. But it would have been great to be able to pay people for their hard work. I’d have taken more time over more money, though.

 

Were there any advantages to having less money?

 

You have to think very creatively to shoot effectively on a low budget, especially on film.

 

What kind of favours did you pull to get the film made?

 

The cast and crew worked for free. Various bands played a fundraiser for us. We got money from parents and friends and the use of some cool locations through friends of the family.

 

Where should your money go in a low-budget films?

 

For me, it’s visuals. There’s no reason low-budget films have to look ugly. And quality gear is key. After that, quality food. It keeps people happy.

 

 

Did you write the idea for a low-budget? If so, what did you take into account when writing the script?

 

Yes, the whole project was geared towards the budget from the get-go.

 

Would you make another film at this level, or do you think it served as a training ground for something bigger?

 

I learned a hell of a lot. Of course I’d like to make something bigger, but I’d do it again. I just love making films.

 

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fur_coat_no_knickers

Fur Coat and No Knickers

– Dir: Paul Ward

– Overall Budget: €22,000

– Shot on Z1

 

Budget Breakdown

 

Camera equipment for the 17-day shoot and pick-up days – €3,500. Sound equipment for the same length of time – €3,000. Lights rental for the same –  €2,800 We rented tracks for a few days of the shoot – €500.

Most of the locations were free but we paid for a few of the days – €500.

Costume and props for shoot – €1,400. Catering for the whole shoot and pick-up days – €3,000. Office and accountants – €2,000. Post-production, Digibeta, travel – €4,600.

 

What kind of favours did you pull to get the film made?

 

All the cast’s fees were deferred, and nearly all of the crew and most of the fees for the locations, editing and sound mixing were all deferred. The songs were a huge favour.

 

Where should your money go in a low-budget films?

 

Get a really good camera and DOP and as many lights as you can stretch your budget to. And also insurance as it makes everything so easy and it’s better to get the best.

 

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The Disturbed

– Dir: Conor McMahon

– Overall Budget: €1,530

– Shot on Sony Z1

 

 

Budget Breakdown

 

Location for the 6-day shoot – €550. Camera for the 6-day shoot – €150. Travel – €50. Food – €230. Post Sound – €200. Mini DV Tapes – €60. Effects – €90. Digibeta Tapes – €200.

 

Was the film written for a no-budget?

 

On this film I used the old rule of no-budget film – take your actors to one location and chop them up. I actually just booked a house down the country a month in advance so it gave me a deadline to come up with a story and get everything organised.

 

Did you have much cast or crew to deal with?

 

We had three actors in total and three people on the crew, including myself, so there was very little expenses for food or transport.

 

Having made a film already for €100,000, what was the purpose of going back to make a film for €1,500?

 

The film started out as an experiment in improvisation on film. I wanted to just focus on something simple that would allow me work with actors. I wanted to get away from the rigidity that often comes with having a large crew. So I didn’t have any intention at the beginning of how long the film would be or how it would turn out. I also wasn’t under any pressure to deliver a particular kind of film or make something that would sell. And it was quite liberating to make a film in that frame of mind, because the focus was just on the scenes and making them work and also having fun. So having no budget can be a big plus.

 

I think you can spend a lot of time worrying about what will sell and if the film will look crap if it’s made for no money. But I don’t think you should be asking these kinds of questions. If it turns out crap, just don’t show it to anyone.

 

Do you need a lot of money for post-production?

 

Some people decide not to shoot their film because they hear about the costs for the deliverables that are required by sales agents and distributors. This can include legal documents, publicity material, copies of the finished product and additional copies for subtitling and dubbing. But the truth is, if your film is good, someone will foot that bill. So I wouldn’t worry about it when you’re doing your budget. Just focus on getting the film made, and if it works, someone will pick it up.

 

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The Inside

– Dir: Eoin Macken

– Overall Budget €4,000

– Shot on Sony Z1

 

Budget Breakdown

 

The bulk of the money when on insurance, which was important considering the location we were shooting. The rest went on camera and lights, make-up effects, costume, and then food costs. But because the film was shot over only 5 days, we were able to keep the costs down.

 

Do you think having more money would have helped?

 

It would have in terms of allowing more time. When you’re making a film on a shoestring you can’t ask people to give up too much of their time if they are not been paid. More money also would have given us more time to experiment with lighting.

 

Were there any advantages to having less money?

 

There are, because you pull together people who believe in the idea of the project, the vision and they want to create something that they are proud of and can stand by instead of just working on a job.

 

What kind of favours did you pull to get the film made?

 

Most of the favours consisted of getting the location and cheaper equipment. Obviously crew and cast had to give their time. Making a film like this requires the coming together of many talented people. It won’t happen otherwise.

 

What do you think you should prioritise spending money on for low budget films?

 

The priority has to be the essentials. Getting the right camera and lighting and sound equipment is paramount. Without good sound and good compositions then what’s the point? You have to try and aspire to make the most of whatever you can afford or get your hands on but be smart about it. Food is a priority of course, you can’t expect people to work with you, no matter how much they are enjoying it both socially and creatively, if they’re not being kept warm, safe and well fed. Tea and biscuits will not suffice, it’s not fair to expect people to pay for their own food and petrol, or taxis, for example, if you’re shooting late or early.

 

Did you write the idea for a low budget? If so, what did you take into account when writing the script?

 

For The Inside, yes. I explained to Franco Noonan, my producer, that this was a film that could be done within a short time span, and with minimal cash. There is a looseness that comes with making a film this way that can really benefit it. Of course it can hinder the project but that’s why you should choose an idea or story that fits in with the resources that you have available. I find that this is a great spur because it forces you to create and think imaginatively, try different things and focuses your mind and energy on what you can do.

 

Would you make another film at this level, or do you think it served as a training ground for something bigger?

 

I see making films at this level as a training ground and useful platform to experiment with ideas. The Inside my fourth feature. The first, Christian Blake, was made for less than €8,000 over 18 months. (The budget went mainly on food!) It showed at the Galway Film Fleadh and then sold in the AFM and released across the US and Canada on DVD. The documentary The Fashion of Modelling was made for about €1,200 and was picked up for an hour slot by RTÉ 2 and the feature Dreaming For You was shot in New York for €700. That screened in Galway last year and is doing the festival circuit this year.

 

 This article first appeared in Film Ireland Magazine Issue 132 – Spring 2010

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From the Archive: How To Get Ahead in Acting?

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Illustration by Adeline Pericart

 

How to get ahead in acting? Gordon Gaffney talks to the Gaiety School of Acting, actor’s agent Maureen McGlynn and casting directors Thyrza Ging and Maureen Hughes.

 

Raw talent, steely determination, hard work and jammy luck are essential requirements for an actor to get regular work. But could it be that completion of the finest training and great on-screen looks are not the be-all and end-all? Could a mistake as simple as sending an impersonal, blanket email to every Irish actors’ agent make or break a career?

 

There are a huge number of actors available to work in Ireland at any one time. According to Amy Dawson, coordinator of the Gaiety School of Acting, 16–20 actors graduate from their full-time course each year, with another 90 or so graduating from the one-year part time course and a staggering 1500 or more from their 10-week acting courses throughout the year. A recent casting seminar in Filmbase attracted 300 applicants and there are about 500 actors’ profiles on the Irish Equity website, which is only a fraction of the total number out there. With such a large supply of acting talent, it’s crucial that you go about securing work in the correct manner and avoid common pitfalls with the three most important weapons in an actor’s arsenal: the CV, headshot and showreel.

 

Casting director Thyrza Ging has cast feature films Satellites and Meteorites and Savage and the television mini-series Prosperity, and is also guest tutor on the Acting for Film and TV training course in Filmbase, giving advice to actors on the business side of acting.

 

So you’ve photographed yourself in the mirror using your phone, is this enough?

 

Headshots

’Your head shot is your calling card’ explains Thyrza ‘and the most important thing with a headshot is to give a true and fair view of who you are as a person. Some photographers say, “Please don’t smile” but if you are a very smiley person it isn’t going to be a good representation of who you are.’ Prices for professional headshots range from €80 where you may just receive your photos on an CD, to €200 which may include multiple A4 copies, and personalized business cards with your headshot and contact details on it – very handy for schmoozing opportunities at industry drinks receptions, glamorous film festivals and the Filmbase basement.

 

‘It’s very important to get it right, and for you to feel comfortable in front of the camera,’ Thyrza continues. ‘I recommend actors to at first to play around with a digital camera in the back garden because it is important that you feel comfortable in front of the camera before spending hundreds of euro on a shot. The standard in the Irish industry and the UK is a black and white A4 photograph. In America it’s colour, but a lot of actors here, especially red-headed actors, get colour shots done’

 

Have all casting directors embraced the information superhighway? Some common sense research will help. ‘A lot of casting directors will say it on their websites if they want you to forward a hard copy and not an email – or vice versa. If you do send a hard copy in, I would recommend that you put the headshot and the CV into a ring binder sleeve – it makes life easier for the casting director. Personally, I prefer email.’

 

Attention to detail in you CV is vital

 

In the corporate world of Ponzi schemes and inappropriate loans to company directors, there isn’t a rigid format to a person’s CV. However, all actors’ CVs, like all scripts, are laid out the same way.

 

‘If you have representation, obviously put your agent’s details on the CV at the top, nice and big, all contact details, phone numbers, emails, etc.,’ Thyrza explains. ‘Don’t cc it to every agency in town, there aren’t that many of us, and if you are representing yourself make sure your mobile number and email address are everywhere. Separate your TV and film work from your theatre work, and don’t be afraid to put in short films that you have worked on or commercials, or even voiceover work, because that’s a very particular skill to have – it means you can take words off a page and bring them to life.’

 

‘Always put in the name of the character, even if it was Waiter Number One, and put in the director as well. Also, if it’s a television programme, put in whether it’s RTE, BBC or HBO, because that will jump off the page for a casting director’

 

Showreels

 

A showreel is an edited example of your work of approximately 3–5 minutes duration. What should it contain? ‘You should have three contrasting scenes where your character is the focus. One thing not to do is put a lot of time and effort into a fancy edited montage piece at the beginning. It defeats the purpose because a casting director has only a limited amount of time to watch your piece. And be sure to have your own or your agent’s contact details on the footage.’

 

Hard copy or link? ‘A link is cheaper, you can send it out as many times as you like, you can change it and edit it more easily, and then send me the edited version. I can share it with directors much more easily than hard copy, and I’ll always have a link handy.’

 

iPhones and Blackberrys are essential tools for a casting director but they will also interact with you in person, if you go about it professionally. ‘We are always interested in meeting new talent. So be straight up and professional and just email us, saying, ‘I would really appreciate it if I could meet you for a cup of coffee’. Once they meet you in person, it’s easier to progress to that first audition, rather than just being another headshot. ‘If you want to send an email invitation to a casting director for your theatre show then you should have had that in-person meeting first. You’ve got to do your homework too.’

 

What else should an aspiring actor do? ‘If all of your experience has been in theatre then perhaps you should do an acting for camera course. It’s a very different medium, and the audition process in itself is very different. The advantage is that you can rewind it, play it back and understand it a little better. And sign up for the Irish Film Board, Filmbase and IFTN newsletters and keep an eye on the Call For and Film News sections on filmireland.net. Find out what’s shooting at the moment, who’s got funding and that kind of stuff, because not all projects will have a casting director associated. If you know what’s going on and you know who to talk to, you might get an audition on the back of that. ‘

 

Thyrza’s website caters for both actors and producers and you can visit it here www.castingireland.ie

 

The actor’s agent

The Gaiety School of Acting estimates that the majority of their full-time graduates get an agent in their first year: about 15–20 aspiring stars every year. This person acts as the artist’s point of contact with the casting director.

 

Maureen McGlynn of First Call Management started in stage production and after finishing with the International Theatre Cooperative went freelancing. She was then offered a month’s work in an actor’s agency and is still there 20 years later. ‘There are about 12 agencies in total, and that would include a couple of co-operative agencies which are staffed by the actors themselves. So to work there you would make a commitment to do four hours every week or two weeks. You go in and do the phones, and act as an agent during that period.’

 

So what’s the day-to-day like in an actor’s agency? ‘We get a script or a casting brief from a casting director or producer, which contains a breakdown of how the casting director envisages each character. We then submit our suggestions, including pictures and CVs if necessary, and slot people into an age range. We would try not to make judgments that might be deemed typecasting, because our clients would shoot us for that. The casting director then makes their decision on the actors they would most like to see. Where appropriate, we may well try and cajole the reluctant casting director into occasionally seeing people that aren’t on their most wanted list. We facilitate the process, communicate with our actor clients and set them up, giving them the script pages that they will have to read and any other necessary information.’

 

Maureen confirms the answer to the actor’s ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything (when sending a CV). ‘I think it’s ill-advised to cc it to every agent in town. And take those few extra seconds to sign the letter if you are sending it via snail mail. You’ve got to be very conscious of behaving in a professional manner, it’s an incredibly competitive industry. We would take on two or three clients a year, so don’t trash your present agent if you are looking to change. Ours is a relationship based on mutual trust. We have never signed a contract – a contract can’t mandate the things necessary for the agent/actor relationship to work. If it breaks down on either side, well then it’s just time to move on.’

 

So if there is no contract, how does the business relationship function? ‘With many actors working on low-budget projects, sometimes no money changes hands. The agent’s work must still be done: I spent 12 hours, recently, working on a short film contract where I won’t be paid. However, based on that, the actor might get work in other areas – though normally the shorts are straight offers to our clients’

 

The agent seems to play the role of a loving parent to the actor. ‘We would certainly see every show that we have a client in, because we’ve got to keep up with their work and be a bit of support for them. You need to remind yourself how good they are, because if you represent them, you do believe they are good’

 

Maureen is keen to stress one positive outcome of the economic downturn and reduction in production. ‘It has given us the opportunity to spend the time needed to look at new media rights. Producers are trying to impose a clause into an actor’s contract whereby they purchase all media rights not yet invented in perpetuity. This was discussed at the SIPTU conference recently. All the agents and Equity meet every couple of months to discuss common issues, and we can now dedicate time to that – an incredibly important item from an actor’s point of view.’

 

Actors can send headshots and CVs to Maureen at fcm@indigo.ie

 

Maureen Hughes

 

Maureen Hughes trained as artistic assistant under Garry Hynes at Druid Theatre Company in the ’80s and went on in 1992 to work in the Abbey Theatre for two-and-a-half years as head of casting. She has since moved on to cast several major screen productions, including the Oscar®-winning films Six Shooter and Once. She is also casting director on the upcoming Love-Hate, which stars Aidan Gillen and features a lot of new faces, some of whom have come through the training system both in Ireland and England in the last couple of months and who haven’t been on the screen before.

 

Perhaps surprisingly, the casting director goes through an auditioning experience similar to an actor’s. Maureen explains: ‘You’re sent the script so you can have a read of it. You’ll have an instinctive set of ideas, and you send these back to the producer. These instincts allow you to see the people who could inhabit the characters in the script. Also, you are expected to know who’s who, what they’re at and what the acting community is doing here in Dublin at the moment. If they’re ideas they’re interested in, they’ll call me in to meet with the director. This is when I’m ‘auditioning’ for the job because that script has been sent out to three or four casting directors. The success of my relationship with the director will depend on what kind of ideas I’ve had on the first read.’

 

So how stiff is the casting director competition? ‘The budgets in the last couple of years have been extremely tight, working at the bare minimum in film and television. But at one point there would have been eight or ten casting directors working in Ireland and we were always up for the same jobs. But it is about who reads the script, who gets the meet, who does the better meet and who suits the director the best.’

 

Newbies

‘We can’t afford to rule out actors who have very little on their CV, particularly if they are right for the role.’ Maureen discovered Eamonn Owens who played Francie Brady in Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy ‘in a national school in Killeshandra, County Cavan. We kind of knew we wouldn’t find him in a drama class, and there he was at the back of the room with a big red head and fantastic animation in his face’. Outside of casting for psychotic pre-pubescents, where else would she find new talent? ‘I would go to a lot of fringe shows and watch an awful lot of short films. As an actor you have got to start working yourself up some screen credits. Ring third level colleges to get on student films and get your ass out there – you’ve got to get yourself some experience, which will almost always be unpaid in the beginning’

 

So actors can have a rough time of it in the beginning? ‘I would say that the actor’s agent job is actually the hardest. They have to be there at every opening night and at the end of the phone for every crisis. I can actually close the door at six o’clock and go home. About two-thirds of the acting community are not represented in this town – there aren’t enough agents in Dublin to cope with the amount of acting talent there is.’

 

On-book/off-book

So how does the casting director get their choice of actors through the process? Maureen explains: ‘First, you check if the actor is available for the specific period of time. You send them the script in advance and ask them to prep a scene. Then you bring them in to audition. Personally, I don’t mind people not being off-book [reading from the script], but there are casting directors and directors who will be very, very unimpressed if they do. It’s up to the actor himself to check who he is going to be working with. Sometimes I feel if people are really, really off-book then it’s very hard to unlock that performance. Whereas, at least if you have somebody just reading it, they’re not scared to try it a different way.’

 

‘For film and television the audition is everything, because if it ain’t working on the screen, it just ain’t working. We use fairly limited MiniDV cameras but it has got to work on camera on the day.’

 

‘I suppose the big thing is “to thine own self be true” There is nothing worse than coming into the audition dripping with neediness. Are you happy with the way you read? Can you get up out of that chair, walk out the door and go, “well, fuck it, I thought I did great.” I’m looking for the person who does that as opposed to the person who has tried to second guess what we’re looking for and ends up in a very artificial process.’

 

So what’s the bottom line? ‘Good, intelligent preparation is everything. Who are you meeting in the room? What are they like? What are their expectations? I’m bringing you in there, so ring me. I want you as prepped as you can be, because I don’t want to look foolish either.’

 

Maureen Hughes is contactable at maurz@indigo.ie

 

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From the Archive: Graham Linehan – Master of Comedy

Graham Linehan Open Interview 15

How does comedy writer extraordinaire Graham Linehan do it? An IFTA ‘In Conversation With…’ interview gave Ross Whitaker the low-down

It’s probably fair to say that despite the mightiness of our craic and the seemingly bottomless pit of successful Irish comedians pulling faces on channels at home and abroad, we probably couldn’t really consider ourselves to be masters of television comedy.

This nagging feeling isn’t helped by the close proximity to us of a country that has produced some of the finest panel, sketch and situation comedy in the history of television. In recent times, what have we produced to rival the likes of Fawlty Towers, The Fast Show, Have I Got News For You, Only Fools and Horses or The Office? We haven’t even come close.

There have been good moments, no doubt. Back in the day, Don’t Feed the Gondolas had its moments and I, for one, was highly impressed by the recent rté sketch show Your Bad Self and was sorry to hear that it won’t be returning. Still, the success stories have been few and far between.

There’s one shining light, of course: a superb sit-com about priests, created by Irish writers and starring Irish actors that proved to be massively successful. Father Ted was no less than a phenomenon. And despite our poor tv comedy record, pretty much the only thing not Irish about Ted was that it was commissioned and broadcast by Channel 4.

By now, everyone in Ireland knows that the brilliant duo of Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan somehow fused their substantial talents to create a work of true genius. Father Ted is up there with the best of them, a complete classic that will no doubt be repeated on the small screen time and time again for many years to come without ever getting tired.

Since then, Linehan has gone on to create the outstanding comedy series Black Books with Dylan Moran and, more recently, The it  Crowd. It would be fair to say, he’s cracked it, so it was with great interest that I attended the recent ifta event, In Conversation with Graham Linehan.

Linehan was in Ireland for the making of a definitive Father Ted documentary to be directed by Adrian McCarthy of Wildfire Films, one he hopes will dispel a lot of myths that have grown up about Ted.

The biggest, he says, is that Father Ted was first offered to and refused by rté. Linehan and Mathews had already been working in London and developing relationships with broadcasters for a while when they came up with the idea of Ted, so pitching it in the uk seemed like the sensible thing to do.

‘We didn’t do it with RTÉ because we were in England and we had a career there, so it would have been strange to go back to Ireland and start from the bottom in  RTÉ, a company that never really made a successful studio sitcom. Because there was no infrastructure in Ireland for those kind of studio sitcoms, it would have been crazy to give it to them.  RTÉ did many great things but studio sitcoms was not one of them.’

 

Linehan had started out as a music journalist and film critic in London and seized his chance to move into comedy writing when Mathews decided to also move to the UK. They ended up living together for four years and developing a close writing relationship.

‘Me and Arthur had this thing – because Arthur has an incredible sense of humour – and we were able to translate our conversations onto the page and it was just a good mix.’

‘We took turns. Arthur would write two pages and then I’d sit down and read it and I’d laugh and I’d have an idea for fixing something, so I’d edit it and then I’d write on a few pages. We used to have Magic Eye pictures and basically one of us would be writing and the other would be staring at a picture trying to see a rabbit.’

This ability and desire to edit their own work seems to be central to their success as writers. Linehan explains that he and Mathews were always happy to redraft their work if they felt it would make it better and suggests it’s something more writers might embrace.

‘We were very happy to throw out a scene or a plotline if it didn’t work. Writers can sometimes be defensive about notes but we would be happy to take it away and create a new plotline and ten pages that were totally different. I love that.’

‘To me, the first draft is always a horrible, unpleasant grind but the second draft and the third draft I love because you can see the story, the jokes are getting better and bad plotlines are being squeezed out by the good stuff and then you get to a stage where the script is in such good shape that you’re literally just talking about full-stops and commas and that’s a nice place to be and that’s when the really funny one-liners come in.’

‘I do find that a lot of writers still don’t understand how important rewriting is and how your first draft is just notes for the main draft. I see it as a bunch of notes, potentially funny ideas, jokes and situations that might work or might not. The first draft is just there so I have something to work from for the second draft where it really starts coming to life.’

Subsequent to Father Ted, Linehan and Mathews created Big Train, a sometimes surreal sketch show featuring Simon Pegg and Catherine Tate amongst others. While it was different from Ted, Linehan prefers not to use the word experimental. The aim is not to experiment but to make people laugh.

‘My thing is that telling a funny story or joke is already difficult enough, so I’m not really interested in pushing the boat out. I just want to be funny and it’s hard. When you hear an experimental piece of music, I think that’s easy to do; the difficult thing to do is create a song that’s around forever.’

While Linehan has also written for sketch shows like Alas Smith and Jones, The Fast Show and Harry Enfield and Chums in the past, his niche really seems to be the family-friendly sitcom that can be enjoyed by all.

‘I think with media now, everything is becoming atomized. Everyone in the family is in a different room on a different kind of media. I think what I’d like to do is try to bring everybody back into the room.’

‘It’s the stuff I always watched with my dad when I was a kid. I don’t think I’ll ever feel the excitement again of dad finally saying, ‘Ok, you can watch Fawlty Towers.’ I’m not too interested in mission statements but I do want to avoid comedy that drives people out of the room. If you’re watching a comedy show and somebody says something about menstruation and your father goes, “I’ll just go and make a cup of tea…” I want to do stuff that keeps you in the room.

Linehan shows a clip from The it Crowd that perfectly represents what he’s aiming for. An escalating scene where one gag leads to the next, each laugh greater than the last.

‘That’s what I’m always trying to do… You come up with a situation that has to be very believable because if it’s not believable nobody will laugh. But it also needs to be the kind of situation that gives birth to lots of other situations. If the situation is good then you’re almost just transcribing what would actually happen next.’

What’s clear listening to Linehan is just how much hard work he puts into making his shows look easy. The amount of thought and effort that goes into creating high quality comedy is mind-boggling and Linehan is certainly a man that all aspiring writers could learn from.

 

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 134 in 2010. 

 

 

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From the Archive: Paul Webster takes a look at the Irish post-production scene.

Foley artists at work

 Foley artists at work

Getting to wrap can seem like such a sprint across the finishing line that you might be worn out by the time you get to post-production. However, as we all know, production is a marathon and although post sometimes seems like the home straight, really you’re only half-way there.

Ok, that’s the last time I’ll use the running metaphor, I promise.

In recent years, Ireland has become a hub for post-production facilities and has garnered an international reputation for excellence. To get a handle on current trends, I spoke to some of the leading names in post-production in Ireland.

With the current advancements in this field and the apparent affordability, it is easier than ever to push post-production to the back of your mind. However, as Paul Moore, Chair of Ardmore Sound says, ‘The smart money sees post-production as being as much a part of the creative process as shooting.’

Dublin in particular has become a strong base for post houses with more than 10 major facilities operating in the capital alone, and then there are other post production centres like Telegael in Galway, The Mill in Cork, and Banjax Studios in Belfast. The specialities of these various companies range from television and commercial editing to feature editing, as well as facilities concentrating mainly on sound, animation and visual effects (VFX).

I’ve been travelling around to some of these companies and speaking with their directors, editors and supervisors. Getting time to speak to them is very difficult – the good news is, they’re busy! As well as domestic film and television projects, post houses are dealing with major international productions that see Ireland as somewhere with a suite of options open to them.

‘All of the facilities in town have proved that they can provide post-production services in an international marketplace for both broadcast and theatrical release,’ says Jim Duggan, MD of Screen Scene. ‘The main one we did last year was Game of Thrones. Effectively, Screen Scene was the post-production home for Game of Thrones and at one stage there were 66 people in this building working on the show. The post-production industry here has proved that it has the capacity, the capabilities, the knowledge and the people required to service international television and feature films. I think we’ve always had the talent and in the last few years there has been a volume of work that has allowed the talent to prosper and show that this work can be done in Ireland.’

A trend of collaboration between companies has also emerged here. When I visited Windmill Lane, they were completing work on the impressive visual effects for Titanic and at Ardmore Sound they were also hard at work on the sound mixing for the same series. A ten- to twelve-episode series like this can bring a post-production budget of around €4m, so there is huge value to the economy in building a strong post-production base to attract world-class projects. The work can be spread across various companies and capability has grown massively in the last two to three years.

One area that is in its infancy in this country is VFX, however, this too is changing. Windmill Lane has been developing their VFX department with great success. As well as creating the visuals of the Titanic hurtling towards its imminent demise, the company has also recently completed work on some very exciting projects including the sci-fi thriller Lock-Out Lockout, starring Guy Pearce. The demand for CGI and VFX has grown in the past few years, but it is not just fantasy and sci-fi that require this sort of imaging. As well as blockbuster-style filmmaking, lower-budget films are turning to VFX to save money in high production costs.

As James Morris, CEO of Windmill Lane, says, ‘Makers of period films are turning more and more to VFX to help recreate eras. For example, these methods were used heavily in the recent adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which was set in the sixties.’

‘Although the VFX department grows out of post-production to a certain extent, this will only go so far,’ says Morris. To build a successful VFX industry, we will have to look at it as a completely separate process that requires its own departments, personnel, and scheduling. As the reliance on these sorts of skills grows, filmmakers are going to have to familiarize themselves more with terms like layering, compositing, tracking, modelling, texturing, building assets and rotoscoping – but please don’t ask me to explain any of these.

‘The thing that we’ve discovered is that it’s a different discipline and people need to think of visual effects as part of an art department and not as a separate thing at the end,’ says Jim Duggan. ‘The most successful visual effects that we’ve been involved in were ones where the art department and the visual effects department are working hand in glove. When they talk early on, they collectively find the best way to spend the budget on the look of your show.’

Post-sound is another area that can seem somewhat overwhelming. There are various roles that you may not be familiar with, so Ardmore’s Paul Moore gave me a quick rundown of the post-sound process on an average film project. It goes a little something like this: once the rough cut is assembled, the director will go through the cut with the sound supervisor and break it down together into the elements needed. Usually the first job is the ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) – this is when the actors will be brought back to re-record certain scenes for sound. Nowadays post-sound facilities have the ability to co-ordinate this internationally, so often the actor will be in a different studio in a different country to the director and supervisor. The dialogue editor will then bring these recordings into the appropriate scenes and clean them up.

The next person to do their thing is the sound effects editor, and a Foley artist may also be brought in at this stage to record specific sounds like footsteps, doors opening, slamming etc… I was lucky enough to see a Foley room and I must say it is quite an experience. The floor is covered in different rugs and surfaces, there are boxes and boxes of different shoes and buckets full of different materials like sand and gravel, all just to get the right kind of footstep.

Finally, the music will come in at this stage and all the elements are ready to be mixed, in the final stage of the process. However, the sound supervisor’s job is still not done. He will often have to deliver many different versions of the soundtrack, for example producers might require a Dolby 5.1 version, a stereo version, a version without dialogue for dubbing into foreign languages, a de-sweared version and so on.

So is post-production getting more or less expensive? Well, there is a massive gulf between higher and lower-scale budgets. At the lower end of the scale, filmmakers are taking a much more hands-on approach. More affordable and accessible hardware and software has allowed filmmakers to do a lot more themselves. If you look at any of the film centres around the country you will find that the most popular courses are the ones giving training in software like Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro, Pro Tools, After Effects, etc…

These software packages have led to filmmakers editing at home and then bringing their projects to post facilities for finishing touches.

‘It’s become more normal than abnormal except for bigger projects,’ says Eugene McCrystal of EMC post, which specialises in online and grade facilities. ‘For most projects that I’ve been involved in, we have a discussion with the filmmakers at the start of the process to come up with the best workflow, so by the time it comes to me hopefully it’s straightforward because a plan is in place. When there’s no plan, it gets more complicated.’

However, just because low-budget filmmakers can edit at home, it doesn’t mean they should. Post houses are happy to talk to filmmakers from the very beginning of their career.

‘I’d say this about all of the post houses in Dublin, that all of the facilities here are incredibly supportive of the industry and always have been,’ says Jim Duggan. ‘I say to people that we’re good with every budget from zero to whatever. What post companies hate is somebody coming and saying I spent all of the money on the shoot, so I say to people be realistic about post-production needing a percentage of your budget, whatever that budget is. However, I think that people need to acknowledge that the infrastructure does require feeding. It’s not here by accident and I think it’s important that people support it when they do have money.’

The playing field has been levelled in terms of equipment and technology. However, what really counts is the skills and experience of the talent sitting at the desk, pushing the dials and twiddling the buttons in the studio. In recent years, Irish post-production talent has proved it’s up there with the best in the world.

 

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From the Archive: I Was One of the Hollywood 10

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Before the gurus, before the weekend seminar, there was J.H. Lawson. Mark McIlrath casts an eye over one of the greatest guides to screenwriting ever published.

John Howard Lawson’s Theory and Technique of Playwriting and Screenwriting was published in 1949. Lawson was the first ‘president’ of the Writer’s Guild of America. A member of the Communist Party, he later suffered during the McCarthy era, becoming one of the Hollywood 10, and was sentenced to a year in prison. He died in 1977. His book remains one of the most perceptive and intelligent guides for the screenwriter. A copy will cost you $250. If you can’t get your hands on a copy, you might be interested in the following, a rough summary of the man’s thoughts on screenwriting.

Unity Of Climax
The unifying element in the film, as in other story-structures, is the climax, the ultimate event that brings the action to a point of maximum tension and solution. The climax is the key to the system of events.

An experienced screenwriter is likely to begin preparation of his screenplay at the climax.

The climax expresses the dramatic purpose of the writer. It is a definite objective which embodies the author’s dominant idea in a meaningful event.

The story as a whole is an action with unity as a whole.

The climax is one effect which binds together the system of causes. All actions contain cause and effect, and the point of tension is the point at which cause is transformed into effect.

The story as a whole is a chain of causes leading to one effect.

If the climax is not the supreme moment of an inevitable struggle, in which the deepest motives and feelings have been dramatised it lacks thematic clarity.

The conscious will of characters is exposed under increasing pressure – humans facing a challenge which has magnitude to their lives. The writer must make it as hard as possible for his characters, putting them under the greatest pressure, and in a position where they need to act. This is a key part of progression in drama.

Each scene must have mounting emotional power with a moment of crisis. It presents a problem to the dominant character of the scene.

The action of a film embraces the direct conflict between individuals and the conditions which oppose or limit their will. We observe this conflict through the conscious will of the characters.

Each triumph or reversal is the culmination of an act of will which produces a change of equilibrium between individuals and their environment. Change requires new adjustments, and makes new complications inevitable.

Scenes – Sequences – Acts, and the film, have the same basic structure.

The writer must consciously know where he enters the paradigm. Scenes generally have unity of time and place. Sequences and Acts, of action:

The cycle of activity commences with a decision to follow a course of action. The tension is developed in fulfilling the decision. A complication requires another decision on higher plane.

EXPOSITION
At the beginning of the film, we wish to understand as fully as possible why the conflict of will is necessary, why the backstory and current experiences of the characters make it necessary. The opening actions sum up this experience. This, in turn, creates the environment which is enlarged as the story proceeds. But it is the same environment.

The forces which determine the original act are the forces which determine its conclusion.

At the beginning an important decision is made. This concentrates the conscious will on a conflict with a defined aim. The conflict is forced on the protagonist(s) by circumstances. The decision made is itself a climax of magnitude and cannot be covered by explanation. Since this situation is the key to the story, a static / underdeveloped opening will affect the movement of the whole story. The decision is so important that it covers all the possibilities of the story, and therefore must be the result of considerable changes in the status quo, whether between the individuals, or with their environment.

Since exposition covers the possibilities of drama, it must be more closely connected to the climax than any other part of the film.

The unity of the story is the unity between the exposition and the climax.

The visual impact of the opening scene is also a requirement of film structure. The sweep and drive of forces that come to a head in the climax must be visualised in the exposition. In any film, the camera must be co-author.

The exposition must introduce the world of the story, literally the time and place, and lay down the genre expectations by which the spectator will understand and inhabit the story. It must pose the problem: it must show the scope and intensity of the struggle that will culminate and be solved at the end. There is also the need to individualise the problem, to define its effect on a personal level. The writer must get an emotional attachment from the start.

THE OBLIGATORY SCENE
The obligatory scene represents the point of foreseen and expected crisis, toward which the progression is moving. It is the physical culmination of the conflict. The climax goes beyond the physical drive, and exposes the thematic meaning of the action.

Screenwriters tend to confuse the obligatory scene with the climax. They often jumble the two together, or develop a climax which is only a repetition and elaboration of the obligatory scene. This happens in films which have no core of meaning that could flower in an effective climax. There is no problem of character or human relationships to be solved. Having exhausted his invention with the obligatory scene, the screenwriter finds he cannot escape the structural law that demands unity in terms of climax.

Conversely, there are films which are powerfully conceived in terms of theme, but where the treatment is abstract, without full development of its meaning in human lives and relationships. In these films, the obligatory scene is likely to be weak, and the whole force of the concept is concentrated in the climax.

It is natural to speak of the climax as a point of action. This gives the correct impression that it is closely knit and sharply defined. But it is not necessarily a point of time. It may be a complex event; it may combine several threads of action; it may be divided into several scenes; it may take a very abrupt or extended form.

The climax furnishes us with a test by which we can analyse the action backward; the obligatory scene offers us an additional check on the forward movement of the action.

The audience don’t know what the climax will be, but they do test the action against their expectation, which is concentrated on what they believe to be the necessary outcome of the action – the obligatory scene. A story must provide a point of concentration toward which the maximum expectation is aroused. The writer must analyse this expectation. As the obligatory scene is not the final outcome of events, s/he must convince the audience that the break between cause and effect, between the action as intensified by the plot and the thematic conclusion of the climax, is inevitable.

Summing up:
The obligatory scene is a break between expectation and fulfilment, and an effective bridge to the climax. What happens needs to be inevitable, and an integral part of the protagonist’s experience.

The obligatory scene asks a question; it remains for the climax to provide the answer

CLIMAX
The climax is the controlling point in the unification of the dramatic movement. It is not the noisiest moment; it is the most meaningful moment, and therefore the moment of most intense strain, and is the result of an intensification of decision.

In principle, the climax is the root and culmination of the action. In practice, the screenwriter is all too frequently faced with the necessity of inventing a final situation that is only formally related to the previous development of the story.

In films where the obligatory scene is logically the end of the action, Act 3 is like starting a new plot, with new exposition leading to a new series of situations. This in turn sets up a renewed effort and goal for the will and destroys unity of action.

The climax must be rooted in the emotional experience of the characters in order to communicate the experience to the audience

PROGRESSION
At first glance it may appear that the obligatory scene and the climax are the same thing; but there is a very important difference between the expected clash and the final clash.
The obligatory scene may, in certain instances, be almost identical with the climax in time and place; but there is a great difference in function between the thing we do and the result of the thing we do, a sharp break between cause as it seemed and the effect as it turns out.
The same contradiction exists in all the subordinate cycles of action, and creates the progression.

The more important moments at which such a recognition occurs are the obligatory scenes of the various cycles of action. The break between cause and effect leads to the actual effect, the culmination of the action. For this reason, the climax invariably contains the element of surprise; it is beyond our expectation, and is the result of a break in the expected development of the action.

Surprise is the essence of drama, and is present in every movement of the action. But recognition of the break between cause and effect is very different from ignoring or evading the logic of events. We must know the cause.

Many films have a rising action that does not rise, a progression that fails to progress. The circumstances and problems that determine the action are not sufficiently important to keep it moving. The climax established in the exposition and culminating in the climax is not vital enough to occupy our time – or the time of the characters.

If the progression has explored all the potentialities of the situation at the obligatory scene, it will be exceedingly difficult to carry it forward to a climax. The result is an excuse for further action, rather than it being a condition of action.

The problem that the screenwriter faces stems from his failure to establish conditions in the exposition which rationally explain and motivate the ensuing action, a thematic purpose that will guide and inspire the protagonist through the plot to a meaningful conclusion.

There must be structural preparation for the development of the problem, which has psychological consistency, the build up of a sense of inevitability in which the protagonists will come face to face with the fate that has been closing in on them – a visual and dramatic portrayal of the forces that constitute the framework of social causation, shown through the conscious will and decisions of the characters under increasing pressure.

CHARACTERISATION
The only way in which we can understand character is through the actions to which it is subsidiary. Actions must not be limited and chaotic, they must exhibit a sustained purpose.

Drama is when circumstances trap the character and s/he cannot avoid committing an act, and this is both dramatically and psychologically the key to progression – and therefore the key to character.

Emotional participation unites the audience with the action.

Identification is more than sympathy. Identification means sharing the character’s purpose, not his virtues.

The main problem of characterisation is progression – the character maintaining the same attitude throughout means that it is not a human being at all, but a mere embodiment of two or three characteristics which are fully displayed in the first 10 minutes and then repeat themselves. Characters can have neither depth nor progression except insofar as they make and carry out decisions which have a definite place in the system of events which drive toward the climax.

To increase the emotional load, characters need to change. For emotional engagement, tensions need to be built. If there is no tension, there is also no solution, and no final moment of breaking tension. A character must react to the necessities of his environment, his conscious will must be exposed.

We are moved by what moves the characters. Film poses an absolute necessity (which determines what the protagonist does) against a conflict in which the conscious will, exerted for the accomplishment of specific and understandable aims, is sufficiently strong to bring the conflict to a point of crisis. Conflict reveals character.

Progression is a matter of structure, and meaning is a matter of theme. Neither problem can be solved until we find the unifying principle which gives the screenplay its wholeness, binding a series of actions into an action which is organic an indivisible.

Comment
Paul Schrader’s injunction to put ‘the theme in every scene’ restates Lawson’s unity of climax. The basic ideas seem dry. They are dry, especially compared to the Syd Field school of screenplay-by-numbers. But isn’t the idea of the obligatory scene clearer in its function, and more helpful towards the overall construction, than Plot Point 2, or even Crisis?

Checking each scene against the climax is a useful tool, even for experienced screenwriters.

John Howard Lawson was an early theorist who took cinema seriously. Current Hollywood ideas about sequential structure have taken up the paradigm Lawson described to divide the screenplay further into manageable units, groups of scenes with common purpose and goal, tested against the overall climax. It’s just surprising that Lawson’s book is invisible when assorted smart-arses and smug, over-paid, jargon-mongering script consultants get so much acclaim.

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 95 in 2003.

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From the Archive: Irish Playwrights & Screenwriters Guild: Claire Dix

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Claire Dix is an award winning writer and director of short films and music videos and also works in documentary TV. After winning the Zebbie for Best Short Film Script for her short film Downpour last year, Steven Galvin caught up with her to find out about her approach to writing.

What did winning the Zebbie for Best Short Film Script mean to you?

It’s always wonderful to win an award but the Zebbie was special because it was the first prize I’ve received for scriptwriting. Members of the playwright and scriptwriters guild voted so that was also a real honour to be acknowledged by other writers.

Can you tell us a little bit about the genesis of Downpourfrom idea to script?

The Irish Film Board runs a funding programme called Short Shorts, which they theme each year. When I entered, the theme was ‘Ireland, I Love You’. Sometimes it’s nice to have a framework or to be given a set of rules to work within. I remember at college working on a lot of projects with no theme or without any guidelines and often feeling completely at sea. In hindsight it was good training because that’s how all my projects start these days but Short Shorts was a refreshing break from the open slate.

I wrote two other scripts for the scheme before hitting on the idea for Downpour, which was simply that if you really love something, you love it warts and all. The rain makes Ireland the country that it is and this film aims to celebrate our love/hate affair with it. Downpour has travelled well, winning several awards at festivals both in Ireland and abroad so the rain seems to have struck a chord. Fran Keaveney in the Film Board was extremely supportive during the development process. I have a habit of redrafting and rewriting up until the bitter end, mainly because the script is a living thing for me and I find it hard to stop ideas coming right up until the end of the whole filming process.

So when did you know you wanted to write scripts?

I started writing stories and prose when I was very young and I have a collection of fantastically embarrassing poems and short stories at home about endangered animals, orphaned fairies and chocoholics. The best or worst example from this era is a poem that was published in Ireland’s Own about autumn. The inspiration came mainly from a thesaurus I found at home and the discovery of writery-sounding words like ‘russet’ and ‘burnt umber’. Thankfully the poetry came to an end but I continued to write stories. When I started working in television after college I began to adapt some of these stories into scripts. My writing had always been visual and I was interested in creating atmosphere and what I now know to be a cinematic feel in my stories. Then I saw Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas and I thought – I want to do that.

How do you make your characters come to life?

To begin with I usually base my characters on real people. They eventually take on a life of their own and evolve depending on their relationship with each other and to the plot but in order to get a real sense of them I first have to see them as someone I already know and have a feel for. I’ve started a lot of scripts based on a character that I want to develop only to reach a dead end with the plot. So I have a lot of fully realized characters waiting in the wings for the right story. There’s one in particular who is based on one of my grandparents and I have to find a script for her soon.

Sometimes I think the best characters are ones that can be slightly intimidating at first or ones that have intriguing personalities that take a little while to figure out. I’d like to work more with these kind of characters but it takes time and pages to develop this kind of depth and so far I’ve only written shorts for the screen. Some characters you know almost too well and there isn’t enough space to express them in. This is where great actors can come to the rescue, however.

Downpour was an exception to how I usually start a script, as it was based more on the concept of seeing the rain in a new light, or learning to appreciate something that we usually complain about, rather than beginning with a character. I work a lot with improvisation in rehearsals. We usually start with figuring out the subtext of each scene and understanding what the character wants. Once that’s determined the actor is free to change dialogue and stage direction until we’re all happy that the scene works. This is one the most exciting parts of the process for me but also one of the most daunting because it doesn’t always work the first time.

After writing two successful short films what’s one of the most important things you think you’ve learned about writing?

The main thing I’ve learned is that you have to put your head down every day or on the days you’ve planned to write regardless of whether or not you’re in the mood. Also, I think it’s important to write about what you want to write about and not about what you think will win funding. The worst feeling is when you realize that your idea has already been done or you come across a similar concept in another film. If you’re still hooked on your own idea I think it’s still worth exploring because it could take you on a journey or down a road that you couldn’t have imagined if you hadn’t started writing.

I’m in pre-production on a short at the moment for the Film Board called Alia about an Afghan family living in inner city Dublin. It’s a story about how a family struggles to stay together and understand each other in this new culture they find themselves in. This script evolved out of a completely different story about a psychic and a young Dublin man. Two of the characters in this script grew into the main characters in Alia. I can’t remember where along the line that happened only that I kept writing and eventually realized that the story I thought I was writing had changed into something else.

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From the Archive: I Write Screenplays

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You want to be a screenwriter? You want to have an agent?  A few words of cautionary advice.

 

Part I. I write screenplays

Really? Some kid with an iMac portable. And the portable was paid for by his dad, and you’re sitting next to him. And his mum thinks you are the answer to young Liam’s problems, and her own. And you feel sorry you’re not a dental hygienist, or dead.

And Liam’s a punchy kid of 20 or 30 or 40 who feels you’ve got to listen. And he’s boring you. And you’ve read two scripts that day, and wish it were a movie, so you could stick an ice pick in his head.
Hello Liam – from all us script editors out here.

Screenwriting is not about glamour. It’s not getting paid for your work. Maybe for years. Maybe never. Doing without what you could have paid for if you had had that money. Holidays. Nice clothes. A flat. Self-esteem.
If you know that – this is for You. Before an agent, if you ever get one.

The Reader
If she’s in a production company she probably does a proper job during the day, and reads in her ‘free’ time. And she’s keen.
And keen means you get four hours.
Four hours – max.
That’s for reading, taking notes, and finally writing the report.
You’re judged in two pages. One’s a summary of your story. The second is looking at Plot, Characterisation, Structure, Dialogue, Tone, Style, Genre, Length. If you don’t understand any of these – really understand them – then buy a book. Don’t waste your time – or hers.

The Reader will say what she likes, or doesn’t like – objectively. She’ll make some comparisons, and think about production values, and how it fits in with her boss – the Producer. Then she’ll write: pass – consider – or – recommend. I have never written recommend.

The Script Editor
The Script Editor reads so much she looks like she puts on her mascara with a spray can. Her eyes hurt. They don’t focus very well after midnight.

The Script Editor gets paid for a phase of development.
She works on two or three scripts at a time, reads, and probably writes as well.
She reads ten+ hours a day. She’s read hundreds, maybe thousands of scripts. She’s liked perhaps two dozen.

She gets scripts which have Producers attached. People are staking money on the project. She is getting paid.
Many scripts go into development and don’t go anywhere.
If you are writing, get the Producer to show good faith and pay you.
Buy the PACT guidelines on pay from The Writers’ Guild London (£10), or talk to the Writers’ Centre in Dublin. If the Producer is not willing to hand out some cash, they don’t believe in your project. No matter what they say.
Get some money. No one will respect you less.
Do not start acting the prima donna. Do that, and all these hard working people will smile politely and close the door. And you will be outside.

If you’re working with a Script Editor they’ll write three or four sets of notes for you, and meet you two or three times. Prepare for these meetings.

Know what questions you want to ask. Make sure the Script Editor knows your script almost as well as you do. If they don’t, they’re not doing their job. The Script Editor should genuinely want to help you and be enthusiastic.

The Producer
Judge a Producer by what he’s done. How many people work in the company? Does it have a Head of Development, or some blonde who makes the Producer’s quality of life better?

Look on the Internet Movie Database for his credits. Don’t be afraid to ask about his experience. Find out who he knows. The Irish Producer lives on Co-Productions and soft money. Money from the EC and State. It’s his ability to raise money, and what he can offer in return which matters. Ask the Producer questions. Learn. This could well be where you’ll want to be in 10 years.

Lastly – give the guy a break. He is a shark, and he will screw you as surely as the fact you’re friendless and needy and don’t know the ropes. But, at the end of the day, he might get your film made, and get you a credit, and there are 1000 easier ways of making money than film production.

The Agent
There are no Agents in Ireland who give a toss about screenwriters.
Buy the Artist & Writers Yearbook, and look at London. If you’ve written for TV or theatre they’ll be much more amenable – otherwise it’s production company values. Submit script. Wait four months. Miss Blonde Totty will use it as a coffee mat. I’ve seen scripts lost. Scripts thrown out – unread.

It’s Sunday morning. Ten o’clock. I get up, make a cup of tea. Look at the table – two scripts. If you think I can think of nothing I’d rather do than read your script on my Sunday – Well?
Script 1. Wrong formatting. This fucker doesn’t even bother to format his script right. It’s 135 pages, in 10 font. Am I suddenly blind or stupid? If the first five pages aren’t great – and I mean great – Butch Cassidy – then I’ll have your report finished by 12.

Script 2. Prose. The writer is the main character. Evidently. The cover page has MA Screenwriting. With distinction. And it’s a clueless litany of PC platitudes which simply proves yet again that talent is neither democratic or fair. Here are her problems, sensitively weeped all over the page, not dramatised. The strictly personal, from the universal. And there it sits, on the table, like a big turd, and I put a clothes peg on my nose, and type the report wondering who teaches these courses. And I’m suddenly sorry again that my dog died last year, as I can’t throw it at him.
Work over, and it’s still only two o’clock.

Learn to write
Develop a critical faculty. Look at www.hundland.com – choose a script.
Look for the key scenes – the scenes where the action turns. Choose a scene. How does the story change through the scene? What are the ‘beats’? What’s driving the scene? What’s the relationship between character and action? Is exposition being given? What Act is this? Break the screenplay down. If you know the significant moments in a movie, you’ve got the structure.

II. I want an Agent

Most people who think they can write – can’t.

It is sometimes worth bearing in mind, if most people can’t write, and you are a ‘screenwriter’, what makes you so certain you can?
A good writer has an Agent, but not all writers who have Agents are good writers. Good writers have good Agents.

Most Agents are honest, hardworking, and genuinely interested in writing. They are also smart. Do not treat them as if you’re doing them a favour.
Agents will develop your writing career through their contacts in the business, both in the UK and the US. They will negotiate contracts and deal with Entertainment lawyers. They will give you expert feedback on your script, and make recommendations. They are your best friend. They fight your battles. They help you. They clear the way for a better deal for you. A better tomorrow.

Here are some points to bear in mind:

1. Do some research on Agents who specialise in film screenplays.

Make a polite phone call and ask them what their policy is, and on the type of scripts they are interested in. Certain Agencies are more geared to developing new talent, even people without previous production credits. Some provide a reading service.

2. Write a clear and very simple letter. Simple – not ten pages.
Do not e-mail it, unless you check first that it’s OK.
Do not fax it.
Describe what you’ve written briefly, and explain if you have credible credits previously, and what you realistically hope for your work.
Briefly – not pages. A good Agent will know from this letter whether or not they’re interested in you. They read that many letters, and that many scripts, that they’ll know from experience whether you’re worth investing in or not.
If the Agent is interested, they will ask to read the work – a feature length script is the norm – and if they’re still interested after that, they will probably invite you in for a chat.
Agents will probably receive between 20-40 scripts a week, and will choose to read two.
Work it out yourself.
Bigger agencies can get 3000 scripts a year.
They will look only at those which have been forwarded to them by reliable contacts in Production companies, or screenplays which have been ‘optioned’. An option is in itself no guarantee. Some truly dreadful film scripts have been optioned, others are going nowhere.

Do not: write a zany letter, or a one-liner which tells them nothing about the work.

3. Do your own research, and know the market and as much about the film business as you can.

Read Screen International or Variety. Find out about what companies have what films on their slate. Know where your own film fits in, and what movies it shares themes or other elements with. Better agencies, such as Jill Foster Ltd, produce a guide every few weeks called ‘Who’s looking for what’.
Research extends to knowing what an Agent doesn’t want.
Sci-fi and Period drama is expensive to produce, and will not be picked up by some Agents.
Be realistic.
There is a need for low budget dramas, strong human interest stories with three-dimensional characters who hold the public’s interest and empathy.
Yet again, think of the recent Danish movies and why they work.
It’s doesn’t hurt to know the demographics of who your film’s for.
Don’t be lazy.

4. Good Agencies will want to develop your writing, and your career.
They’ll take the long-term view on you. They like writers, and are actively looking for new talent, people with something original to say, people who’ve found their ‘voice’.
Such Agencies will not be interested in adaptations on your first approach. They will say no to writing partnerships.
They want evidence that You can write.
The Rod Hall Agency, which represents the writers of The Full Monty, Billy Eliot, Mrs Brown, is an example of a specialist agency which is particularly open and writer-friendly (to their clients).

They have the ear of UK film and TV producers and broadcasters, and their US counterparts. They have good relationships with all the people who matter, and will place you with a Hollywood Agent if it’s in your interests.

5. The most important thing for you to concentrate on is your writing.
If you really have nothing to say, if you’re copying the latest gangster fad – then don’t send it to an Agent. They won’t even bother being annoyed. They just won’t read it – and they’ll be right.

Have the guts to say something new – something relevant.
Read screenplays. Watch movies. Be original.

The Agent.
What does he or she want?
Something fresh – something new.
To make contact with your characters, and feel what they feel. To be taken into your story.
The Agent will make you money, and knows how to plan out your career so that you can be ‘a writer’ – really – as your job.

6. Money.
As a cub, a first timer, you will probably be getting paid
£50,000 for your script.
This may sound a lot, or not a lot of money.
For 50K you’ll write the first draft, then revisions. Then a second draft, with revisions.
After that there’s the Writer’s cut off – where the Producer can get someone else in to write it.

Some Producers won’t give you the second bite at the cherry.
Some Agents will insist on it.

Every Agent is different. Every project is different. Every writer is different.
It’s up to you to go out there and prove to a good Agency that they should risk their time, money, and reputation on You.
One last thing: No means NO.

Useful web-sites on who and what Agents are looking for/ aren’t looking for: www.rodhallagency.com & www.bbc.co.uk/blast

 

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 92 in 2003.

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From the Archive: Interview with Brendan Gleeson and writer/director director John Michael McDonagh on ‘The Guard’.

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In 2011, John Michael McDonagh’s debut feature The Guard was awarded Best Irish Feature at the Galway Film Fleadh. To coincide with our coverage of this year’s Fleadh, here’s a chance to check out Emmet O’Brien‘s interview with Brendan Gleeson and writer/director director John Michael McDonagh, which featured in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 138, 2011.

An unusual mix of old-fashioned values with some decidedly un-PC humour, The Guard is one of the year’s most surprising films. Sharp tongued and engaging, the story of a clever if uncouth Garda, Gerry Boyle, and his battle against drug dealers and corruption, is a great example of contemporary Irish cinema. With a satirical sweep, it enjoys poking fun at the concept of an American cop film but is observed through an undeniably Irish filter. Not as jarring as it could be, the film is a consistently engaging and well-balanced piece which has gone down well in Cannes and at Sundance. It shares the anarchic spirit of the finest of Irish Crime Cinema, like older films such as I Went Down (another Gleeson project) to the more recent triumphs of In Bruges (a movie made by John Michael McDonagh’s brother). I caught up with the director and his leading man to discuss black comedy and how even a simple story of cops and robbers can shed light on much deeper themes, all the while keeping it fresh and darkly comic.

The Western as a genre looms over the piece, its tropes fairly evident. People are always aware of that iconography even at a subconscious level – did that inform the writing?

John Michael McDonagh: That’s one of the key themes of the film, that Boyle is the small-town sheriff and the bad guys have ridden into town. That’s why I wanted to capture that landscape and the music, and use Calexico’s score to bring a Sergio Leone/Ennio Morricone tone to the whole thing. Audiences know the rhythms of the Western, that this plot is going to build to the shoot-out, the climatic gunfight. They know the undercurrents and the subtext so you have that framework. It’s up to you to then surprise them with dialogue or character.

Brendan Gleeson: Western imagery permeates everyone’s sense of the world – of a certain generation anyway, once you have that culturally placed and anchored properly. Boyle joined the Guards thinking he’d be Gary Cooper. He maintains a notion of the challenges he wants to face, which is a very Western concept. The final shoot-out, continues that idea of the cowboy who isn’t afraid to go out in the fight.

Boyle is quite a complex character. A simple surface reading would be that he is a bigot but there’s much more going on there. Has audience reaction to him surprised you?

John Michael: I’ve been hugely surprised that some people have come away from the film labelling him as just a racist, ignoring key scenes elsewhere in the story. They’ve completely missed the point. He’s an equal opportunity misanthrope. He has a W.C. Fields type of outlook. If you have scenes that set up a character one way and then undercut it with a scene of him discussing Russian literature with his mother, then that’s a clue that there’s more going on with this character than you may initially think.

Brendan: For me this film is primarily a character study. It’s all left a little cryptic. You do get to know him but I don’t think you’d be able to predict him anymore than you could at the start of the film, which is pretty cool. There’s a feeling of limbo to him but he still has great integrity and he prods others to see if they have that same integrity. He’ll come at you in a way you’d never expect. There’s a certain amount of Columbo-style investigating with him and he looks to the backward traditions. Maybe that makes him a lonely character, holding onto old ideals of nobility. The depth of his stoicism is astonishing and people needlessly focus on the politically incorrect side of him at the cost of the whole character.

There’s a great economy to the script. In one short scene you set out the three very distinctive villains of the piece with a conversation about their favourite philosophers. Not something you usually see in an Irish crime thriller.

John Michael: My intention was to think, what do you normally see and then to write the opposite, to subvert wherever and whatever you can. Villains are always shouting and swearing at each other in this type of film so I thought let them have a measured conversation about philosophy and the main villain of the piece was trying to bring that idea a step forward. Liam Cunningham’s character doesn’t really want anything, like bad guys normally do. He’s just kind of bored. I knew I’d need more than one villain so I hit upon having three and you had to decide how to make each one unique. When you’re dealing with just one guy then you always have non-descript henchmen. We didn’t want that. Each of these guys could be the main villain in their own movie and it made it much more interesting to write.

Brendan: It’s not often you get three villains discussing Nietzsche (laughs). It’s hilarious but in a way they’re not the real nemesis. Gerry doesn’t feel threatened by them because they can’t really get him. As villains he’s way beyond them and his enemy is more an ennui and a fear of disengaging, of pulling away from this world.

In some ways they’re a MacGuffin [plot device] to get his arc going.

Brendan:He’s grateful to them for arriving, because he finally has a challenge he can rise to.

Whereas the FBI agent is more of a counterpart – ideologically if not personally.

John Michael: With Don Cheadle’s character, Everett, he’s sort of an archetype for Boyle to bang his head against but even there we tried to invest his character with some quirks – the sugar cubes he has, and the fact that his kids are named after members of the Black Panthers. Little moments like that because there was only so much you could do with a character like that to give him a separate identity.

The way the relationship builds between Everett and Boyle is quite organic.

Brendan: In America they really followed Don’s character. He was their way into the humour of the piece. His reactions against Boyle confirmed what they were hearing from some of the riskier dialogue. Americans are more conservative than us so a lot of Boyle’s jokes were met with disbelief or a ‘Did he just say what I thought he did?’ type of reaction. They access Gerry through Everett.

What I like is how there’s not really a resolution between them. It reminds of a scene in Down by Law (Jim Jarmusch, 1986) where the characters go to shake hands and Tom Waits pulls it away and it’s a real moment between them. They have closeness due to the journey they’ve been on. Don even asked me at one point ‘do these people even like each other?’ (laughs).
So you can share an intense experience but that doesn’t mean you’re suddenly best friends.

Let’s discuss the cross pollination of taking an American procedural character and placing him in a quirky Irish town. Was that the initial drive for doing the film?

John Michael: Well the concept was let’s take a CSI and totally fuck with it. I hate those shows, and it perpetuates the myth that with all this technology and equipment you can solve crimes. It’s all a lie. Boyle hates any modern technology like that, mobile phones or computers. A lot of that comes out of my own hatred for movies that lean too heavily on technology. I hate it when there’s a cut to people on a laptop or fingers tapping away. It’s lazy; you should find a different way to communicate that sort of information. It should be more cinematic.

Brendan: Speaking of cinematic, there is such a fusion of genres in this. I think the sense of place is vital to maintaining that. Seeing the little touches of Connemara tells you where the picture lies. The genres become mixed because the viewpoint is mixed. The perspective of that place encompasses the different styles, the crime film, the Western, the black comedy and that’s what makes it possible for all these things to work together. That sense of community. It’s important that when we make films here we’re not afraid to take things actually from here to add to the film, the things that aren’t put up as touristy or sold as commodities but just the more genuine touches. It should reflect a way we look at the world even if it’s good, bad or indifferent.

John Michael: You’re getting people into the cinemas with what they think will be a ‘buddy cop’ formula and hopefully the finished product will surprise them with all these different aspects and that sense of surprise gives a bigger reaction.

There is a stylized quality to it that to me brings to mind Twin Peaks, or Fargo – small-town idiosyncrasies.

John Michael: I don’t mind hearing that at all. I love David Lynch. There’s a constant undercurrent of menace to his work that I enjoy a great deal. And in ’70s movies, the investment in character would give this great sense of melancholy and the whole film would have more resonance.

Brendan: It may be up beyond what is strictly true but you know the qualities here are based on truth. It’s very real, the hilarity of normal people. Fargo did a great job of getting inside a cultural identity. I know it’s exaggerated but you could only write it if you know it, if you lived it.

The timelessness of The Guard is a strong asset to the film.

Brendan: John is very clever in retaining that timelessness. The way the set is dressed, the old telephones and, in the film’s most iconic moment, Boyle has an old Garda dress uniform. It keeps the setting vague, the way it should be.

John Michael: Those old phones are making a comeback. Like vinyl, he puts on an old Chet Baker record in one of the scenes, and these old things always come back and I didn’t want the film to be dated in any way. When you see that in a film, it takes you out of it. You can become too distracted by that stuff and the story suffers.

Speaking of distractions, the Daniel O’Donnell poster in the background in Gerry’s house was a nice touch.

Brendan: Yeah I wasn’t so sure about that!

John Michael: (laughs) Well we decided since that was a heavy and violent scene that Boyle looking at the poster is like addressing his own conscience. Strange to say it but Daniel O’Donnell’s the conscience of our film!

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From the Archive: Steve Woods on the succesful graduates from Ballyfermot College of Further Education

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Give Up Yer Auld Sins

Steve Woods, in his own right a historic figure in the world of Irish animation, looks back on a very special crop of graduates from Ballyfermot College of Further Education

They say that you’re never aware that your era is golden, that it’s only years later when you look back that you see how important a period has been. I had occasion to look back recently when two friends (who also happen to be ex-students of mine) were nominated for the Oscar for Best Short Animation. It got me thinking of a special time in the history of Irish animation – such as it is.

It was a time when the state, through the IDA, decided to invest in film (ironic, as a short time later the government would close down the first Film Board). However, animation was seen a big employer, with as many as 200 inkers and painters potentially working full time in a factory-like set up. One large and two smaller studios opened up here. This in turn brought many kids out of the woodwork who saw animation as a career possibility. With the extra incentive of a Diploma in Animation to be had in Ballyfermot Senior College [as it was then known ED], the elements were there to create a wave of Irish animators.

It shouldn’t necessarily follow that something special had to result from this set of circumstances. But strangely it did, I think probably because the students who answered the call were particularly special. Which is why this era should have its own name. The name I’d choose for them would be the B’Specials, ‘B’ for Ballyfermot.

They come from the initial two years of the course. From the first of these: Cathal Gaffney, the director of Give Up Yer Auld Sins, recently Oscar nominated. Cathal’s enthusiasm for animation is now legendary as is his business acumen. He developed the latter in a course for budding entrepreneurs, which Ballyfermot Senior College provided as a consolation for his being kicked off the course! Diplomatically speaking, Ballyfermot had a problem that Cathal wouldn’t limit himself to the born-again Disney ethos that the Don Bluth studio was expecting from the graduates (I agreed and left with him). Ann Gunn-Kelly worked in Disney, Paris after graduating and before taking up a teaching post in Ballyfermot with Eddie Hallorhan, also from that first year. Both head the animation department now and maintain a standard which has made the College one of the three best schools in the world for… well… Disney animation – many ex-students working on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tarzan and Fantasia 2000 to name a few. Jason Ryan took a good credit in the latter and now works in the 3D department in Disney, Los Angeles. Keith Foran teaches animation in Colaiste Dulaigh and Dun Laoghaire. Finally Damien Farrell of Kaboom Studios.

From the second year there are: Darragh O’Connell, Cathal’s business partner Oscar co-nominee, who also didn’t finish the course. Darragh’s film Racism – written by Cathal is in competition this June in Annecy, the ‘Cannes of animation’. Alan Shannon, who for many years was the chief animator in Brown Bag Films, where he among other things directed and animated the acclaimed The Last Elk. Richie Baneham, recruited by Warner Bros straight from Ballyfermot, has gone on to be a major animator noted for his work in the feature The Iron Giant, where he animated the giant’s runaway hand. Andrew Kavanagh teaches in Dun Laoghaire and co-created with Keith Foran From an Evil Cradling and has just finished The Milliner (see main feature). Gary Timpson is working in Australia with a team on the latest Gorillaz video. And then there’s Seamus Malone who animated the female interest chicken in Aardman’s Chicken Run.

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The Last Elk

Perhaps I’m leaving someone out. Certainly there were other worthy animators in Ireland before Ballyfermot set up its course. Indeed others like the model animator Ruairi Bresnihan (Guy’s Dog and the just completed Ape) and John McCluskey (Midnight Dance and The King’s Wake) belong to this golden era and are honorary B’Specials as their careers rose on the same tide – though John who incredibly learned all his animation from a book would feel uncomfortable with the title since he’sfrom Derry!

Of course other excellent animators are coming out of the colleges and I sure another cluster of specials will emerge.

Next academic year will see a degree course in animation beginning in Dun Laoghaire Institute, Thelma Chambers, who oversaw the introduction of the degree, was a teacher in Ballyfermot and has always promoted a close relationship with the industry world-wide. She believes Ireland is a breeding ground for animation, all the more amazing when we don’t have a great visual art tradition in this country. The achievement of the eleven I have mentioned, plus the two honorees have marked out a space which demands recognition by the Irish Industry. What price an IFTA award for animation?

 

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 87 in 2002.

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From the Archive: Self Distribution

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Pyjama Girls

With self-distribution becoming more widespread, Film Ireland talks to three Irish filmmakers who made the decision to release their own film.

Competition for screens is at an all-time high with more films than ever before being released every week. Economic conditions put pressure on cinemas and films must perform on their first weekend if they hope to stick around. For distributors it makes it harder for them to take a punt on films that might not make an immediate impact. For filmmakers it makes it harder to find a distributor that will take on their film and at the right price. It makes sense then that more filmmakers are looking at the possibility of self-distribution with the advent of the Irish Film Board’s Direct Distribution scheme making it a more attractive proposition.Not every film can be released in this way and, if anything, it seems that documentary might be most suited to self-distribution. Documentary films can gather an audience from the outset of production, making partnerships with interested groups that can help when the time comes to release the film.

The Pipe and Pyjama Girls are two Irish documentaries that have done well having been self-released. So why did they choose to do it?

‘We looked at going with different distributors here but once we saw the terms and conditions we decided that we should do it ourselves as we felt that there was already a community of people interested in the film,’ says Rachel Lysaght, producer of The Pipe. ‘There were a lot of things to take into consideration including ownership of the film and how long the term was going to be. We just felt that rather than giving away all of the rights for a number of years it would be better to retain ownership of the film. We weren’t expecting it to be a huge box-office smash but we felt that a film that addresses these issues and is a David and Goliath story wouldn’t necessarily have a short lifespan and it could be a grower, so we didn’t want to tie up all of the rights with anyone.’

‘I always had that interest in distribution, stemming from a mobile short film channel that I ran for years on Vodafone called Wildlight,’ says Nicky Gogan of Still Films. ‘We went down traditional routes with Pyjama Girls and showed it to the distribution companies that are in Ireland. They liked it but they felt they would have to put too much into it to get a return because of the model they use. That was fine but I really knew there was an audience for the film, so the IFI agreed to put it on for a week and it sold out the whole week. They moved it from Cinema 3 to the much larger Cinema 1 early on in the week and it was a great success. That prompted us to act on the idea of doing something wider with it, so we spoke to access>CINEMA and the Irish Film Board and put together a list of contacts. We weren’t so concerned about rights but it certainly helped us to hold onto more of the profits from the cinema because there were fewer people involved. We try not to give anything away exclusively now. With a previous film we did an exclusive deal with a company for three years and they made a great sale near the beginning but they really have only made one sale, so that was disappointing.’

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The Pipe

For The Pipe, the timing of the release in December 2010 proved to be tricky. One of the biggest snowfalls in history covered the country and cinemas all over Ireland shut their doors.

‘The cinemas at that time were taking in a week what they would usually do on a Saturday night. The weather was horrific. That really damaged us but relatively in terms of how all of the other films were doing we did quite well and we were featuring on the box-office charts. Harry Potter was out at the same time though and that’s something we learned along the way. We couldn’t afford a film print so we went with a DCP (digital cinema print) and DCPs can only show on digital screens and they were in some cases being taken up with 3D movies, so if it was a toss-up between playing Harry Potter or a small documentary about a Mayo community, guess which film gets the screen! We did loads of Q&As and we went everywhere. A lot of the people from Westport also came to screenings and I think the audience really appreciate that and if they know a director is coming it’s more of an event and it’s more likely that you’ll get an audience. If those people engage in it then they become your advertisers because it really gets out through word of mouth.’

For the team at Still Films, the networks built up from years of running the Darklight Film Festival was a huge advantage in marketing the film. ‘We went about things in a way that we have been doing for gigs and the Darklight Film Festival in the past, like posting A3 Posters around the place and getting on blogs and also just using the goodwill of our media contacts to help us get the word out,’ says Nicky Gogan. ‘We had essentially three goes at it with the festival release, the IFI release and then the wider release. We used the usuals like Facebook and Twitter and we approached friends who might have big mailing lists. It was a case of managing all of the networks that we’ve built up over the years with the Darklight festival. The cinemas themselves also do their own marketing, which helps as well.’

‘We were working with access>CINEMA so we did a lot of community screenings,’ says Rachel Lysaght. ‘The Pipe had 6000 friends on Facebook and we tapped into specific groups that already existed that we thought would be interested in the story we were telling – human rights, Irish interest, environmental groups, anti-corporate groups. This was our target audience and if it moved beyond that all the better. We did a lot of community screenings. We also set up an area on our website where people could request a screening in their town and people would email us and if there were enough calls for a screening in a certain area we would contact them and find a venue and in some cases we might project it on a wall. Then I negotiated with the cinema owners as to what percentage we would get at the box office and we did the same thing with access>CINEMA. In the case of access>CINEMA, we pretty much screened off DVD and we agreed a minimum or a percentage there. When it came to individual or community screenings we would mostly do a deal with the venue. You might have a screening in a university where there could be eight people there or there could be eighty-eight people there and you’re not going to know until the night of the screening. So we would agree a minimum amount or whatever percentage of the box office. It might be, purely for example, a minimum 100-euro for the screening and 50% of the box office over that. At least then you know you are getting a minimum for the screening and there’s also an incentive there for the person organising the screening to gather an audience and we would also help by providing posters and online marketing and we would do local press.’

Having a group of people already interested in the topic of your film or a film around which you can build an event is key to finding your audience. ‘Each film is different,’ says Gogan, and therefore the approach will differ each time.

‘I think there are certain films that suit self-distribution. I think with Pyjama Girls it suited a slightly more traditional route and we did screen it in quite big cinema chains. With Nightdancers, an upcoming film about dancers in Uganda going to London to take part in a big show, there could be a live dance element to it and we could tour the film with their live dance show. That could generate a bit of buzz for the film by playing to the audience for the film. That could be the core audience and then moving out from that there might be the documentary audience and the arthouse audience. We’ve talked about doing something like that in the UK and then maybe something similar here in Ireland. It would be an event-based release and we would be thinking of alternative venues as well as cinemas for the film. And the director, Emile Dineen, is really up for it too and since we started talking about making the film we’ve been talking about how fun it’s going to be to get it out into the world. We’ve also been thinking about the possibility of doing a day-in-date release because there might be a limited amount of events based around urban centres, so it would be great to have the film available to the audience through VOD. So it’s a matter of tying in the complementary options that are open to you rather than being completely independent.’

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The Pier

When distributors didn’t go for his film The Pier, Gerard Hurley released his feature-length drama himself in thirteen cinemas in Ireland. ‘I know exactly what my film is. Distributors want big boobs and explosions, they want slick production values and big names. I really had none of the above. I felt a release in Ireland was a possibility and because I’d done it with my previous film in the States on six screens, I felt some confidence that I could release it myself in Ireland. I just got out there and hit the pavement. One of the things I did was make up 400 small film posters and put up those posters myself personally. I drove around from town to town and I met people and I would get into conversations a lot with people and I’d tell them about the film. In the independent world I found that very effective because overall for me the film was very well received.’

Hurley’s plan was to get the film into as many cinemas as possible and he persuaded 13 cinemas to take the film on. ‘My plan was to release it in as many cinemas as possible around Ireland and try to get any media I could to support what I was trying to do. If you stagger the release too much, the national media you do can be lost. You might release the film in Dublin but people will have forgotten about it by the time you get to Cork. It’s really tough trying to get the film into cinemas. It’s a business for them and they want to know what the bottom line is. Some are more sympathetic than others but it’s all about rejection and you get kicked in the balls over and over again but you can’t take it personally.’

Making a connection with your audience on a limited budget is not easy and Hurley found it particularly so because his audience wasn’t the typical cinema-going target market.

‘I wasn’t making the film for the male 15–25 age bracket, the ‘golden horde’. My audience was a lot older. It’s hard to get to them but when you do, they talk to people and help to get the word out. The Irish Film Board were very helpful in supporting the film but you have to have a big budget to go out there and get people’s attention. You need an advertising budget or you need to come up with a creative online campaign. But even getting that right can be as rare as hen’s teeth. Every filmmaker bitches about not having enough money. Even filmmakers with a $10-million budget say, ‘we had very little money’ but I know that if I had another 25k I really could have kicked some ass in Ireland because strategically I worked out that I could have done a certain kind of radio campaign and I think radio is one of the most effective tools for hitting people in rural Ireland.’

All of the filmmakers agree that self-releasing your film is not to be taken lightly. ‘There is a huge learning curve. You can’t say strongly enough that this is a job usually done by someone on a full time basis, so nobody can wander into that territory and expect it to be easy. But I also think that if you really believe in your film, nobody will push it as much as you will. You might not have all the knowledge or connections when you start out but you’ll learn that along the way and hopefully people will see that passion in you and respond.’

 

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 143 in 2012.

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Interview: John Moore

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From Dundalk to Hollywood, John Moore has made quite a name for himself bringing action to the big screen. His feature film career began when he directed Gene Hackman in Behind Enemy Lines; he then remade the classic Flight of the Phoenix, shot a film version of Max Payne – a video game with over 11 million players, remade The Omen, an iconic horror, and has now directed the latest instalment of Die Hard.

Steven Galvin talks to the Irish director who’s making a big bang on the action scene.

You started off at Dublin Institute of Technology and spent time at Filmbase – can you tell us a bit about your memories of that time?

Well, happy, excited. Honestly, if I had stopped to think about it, I would have been terrified, would have thought ‘You better get a real job’. But there WAS this sense of ‘collective’. Remember, no mobile phones, no internet, no social networking so the only thing to do was gather at a coffee shop or at Filmbase (which was a run-down, wonderfully dusty little nook), and chat and feed off the collective belief that we could make stuff, make images, movies, music…so exciting. Honestly? I haven’t really captured that sense of wonderment since then. I think I was very lucky in that I was around a bunch of people, a little older than me and mostly Dubliners who I looked up to, thought were really smart, impressive individuals I could learn from – I felt genuinely grateful to be allowed ‘in’. It was SO damn exciting and we had nothing, really nothing: no money, not a lot of equipment… just this damn excitement that we could actually FILM something and that someone might watch it!!!

You then worked as a news cameraman and moved onto shooting commercials – that must have been a great learning curve.

Well, what happened was a short intro to video camera stuff at RTÉ, then SKY was allowing guys to be around camera, then a rejection from the BBC, and then we formed the ClingFilms collective, consisting of Harry Purdue, Paul Fitzgerald, Damien O’ Donnell and myself. We’d all been at Rathmines together and so we did our thing in music videos for a while, some shorts including the wonderful 35 Aside, which Damien wrote and directed. I started working as an assistant cameraman or clapper loader during that wonderful boom in Irish production in the early- and mid-1990s. I then did some fake commercials to get a showreel going and got picked up to go work in South Africa. They were just emerging from the apartheid regime and their economy and advertising industry really boomed. Exciting times – I didn’t really know what I was doing: 25, in a strange city, alone! But I knuckled through, fake it ‘til you make it. Then I started getting work in Dublin, London and eventually the US and that work led to the movies. I was lucky.

Behind Enemy Lines was your first feature film – there’s an interesting story behind you getting that…

More luck. I did a relatively big commercial for a new games console (which promptly tanked, taking Sega with it!). It aired to some pomp and self-importance at the MTV Music Video Awards – remember this is 1999, music vids were bigger than the Oscars®! So the story goes that an executive at Fox saw the commercial and brought it to their boss, studio head Tom Rothman and he was working on making Behind Enemy Lines happen with producer John Davis (who has made some landmark movies like Predator and Waterworld) and they were looking for a director. They literally called me – I was shooting an Eircom commercial with Riss Russell in Budapest at the time. I jumped on a plane, met them and they hired me!

And was it daunting being in control of such a massive Hollywood production for an Irishman’s first feature?

Again, I didn’t stop to think. It was too exciting to be daunting. And I had gained a bit of experience by then, so I thought, ‘Just go for it’.

What was it like working with Gene Hackman?

Quite surreal but thrilling. He was so damn professional and kind, really all you have to do is point the camera at Gene and he does the rest. And I know how to point – everyone does!

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Coming to Die Hard, what do you think it is about the series that has made it so successful?

Bruce – he’s charming and unique, real and identifiable. Harry Callaghan, Popeye Doyle, John McClane…

You’ve said that you made a conscious decision not to make it ‘overly jokey’.

Well, indeed. There’s no need: Bruce provides the unique John McClane brand of humor, so no need to pile on top of that. In fact, you go the other way: make it super-serious so that McClane’s humour plays in contrast.

What’s it been like working on a film of this scale?

I was lucky to have my first movie be relatively biggish, in terms of production, so this wasn’t anything we hadn’t attempted before. But it’s not easy, there’s a lot that can go wrong when you’re trying ideas for big stunts and action set-pieces, a lot of moving parts.

And working with Bruce Willis?

I started with Gene Hackman, went on through Dennis Quaid, Liev Schreiber and Mark Wahlberg, all tough, opinionated guys, good at what they do. So Bruce was a natural progression. I know what makes these guys tick.

You opened up the set of Die Hard to Dundalk Institute of Technology student Blaine Rennicks for two weeks.

Yep, something I hope more Irish directors, DOPs, etc. will do – pay it forward, pass the break along and help someone move forward in their career. It’s essential for the growth of the business that we do everything we can to ensure guys like Blaine get the help they deserve to develop a career. It’s an obligation, not voluntary.

You used miniatures on Flight of the Phoenix and have spoken about being on ‘dodgy ground’ with CGI. How did that work for you on Die Hard?

CGI improves almost exponentially – we had a good experience on Die Hard but we still did a huge amount of stunts live-action. Always will.

When you’re working on something so massive, do you ever have moments of ‘Jesus, I’m directing Die Hard!’?

Not really. Does the pilot of a 747 ever have moments of ‘Jesus, I’m flying a Jumbo!’? I hope not!

In general can you tell us a bit about directing action sequences?

Well, that’s a whole big, fun conversation, but the rule is: get great stunt guys who’ll really put it out there for you to film. Action is editing, so lots of cameras, please! And forget masters! You always end up cutting them to bits. That’s it, in short. Oh, and invest in some good ear protection.

What’s the draw for you directing action films?

I love the planning – the idea of being meticulous in the ridiculous. It’s a thrill to plan something for months, years even, and see it all come together in 30 seconds of wonderful, loud mayhem.

You’ve talked before about the fact that story and action don’t have to be mutually exclusive – can you say a little more about this?

What I meant by that was ‘integration’. Action should be a natural, ruling part of the story. A movie shouldn’t feel like it stops for a gratuitous action set-piece – though they often do and the film is the poorer for it. I’ve done it myself and regretted it.

Are there specific things you look for in a script?

Pages. And that they be unstoppably turnable.

What is the development process within the studio system like?

You’ve read Dante’s Inferno? It’s tough, horrible, but like Churchill said about democracy: it’s the worst system, apart from all the others.

How involved are you in the post-production process?

Totally and integrally – it’s the best, most creative, least stressful period of a film’s production. Get through shooting, you’ll be fine…

Would you like to take a break from action and take on a different sort of story – perhaps something on a smaller scale?

No– why would I? I love it – but I always am looking for the stories to be better. Zero Dark Thirty is an action movie.

You’ve worked outside of Ireland for most of your career – any plans to return to Ireland to make a film?

I just don’t really know how to answer that. Yes, but what use are plans? I’d love to, but it won’t come out of thin air. I need the right script, the right producer. That’s a hint for anyone reading this.

And finally, what advice would you have for Irish filmmakers working outside of Ireland?

None. Directors don’t take advice – that’s why they’re directors!

 

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 144 in 2013.

 

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From the Archive: Neil Jordan on The Company of Wolves

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The Company of Wolves was one of the darkest, most daring, and deeply layered cinematic fairy tales ever created. Pavel Barter talks to director Neil Jordan about the making of his 1984 cult classic.

Clapham, London, 1983. Director Neil Jordan and writer Angela Carter are seated beside one another, pens and paper at the ready, dreaming out loud. And their dream is this: monster toadstools and swaying redwoods, giant teddy bears and life-sized dollhouses; a childhood Neverland narrated by a kindly grandma, a storybook snapshot brought to life. But if you go down to the woods today, be sure of a big surprise, for behind the pastoral toys and playful shanties lurks something quite terrible. The beast. Suddenly the dollhouse collapses beneath the weight of a rustic nightmare and with a single howl all your worst fears are realised. You are a child trapped in a storybook. You are the prey and your grandma has become worryingly hairy. And Jordan and Carter keep dreaming.

“Every morning we would meet in Angela’s house to imagine these extraordinary scenes, we would think about them every night, then meet the next day and create more,” recalls Neil Jordan today, fresh from the final edit of Breakfast on Pluto. “We had total freedom playing with different genres, multiple meanings, and ideas of reality and fantasy. We had a ball with it.” The fact that the pair sang from the same literary hymn sheet helped matters hugely. In 1967, Angela Carter was awarded the Somerset Maugham prize for her second novel and throughout the rest of that decade and the 1970’s she cemented a reputation as a formidable feminist critic and novelist. Neil Jordan, 33 years old at the time, also began his career as an award winning novelist, and was fresh from his directorial debut, Angel (1982).

“Angel was shot on real landscapes; no studio work involved at all. After that, I wanted to go the opposite direction and create a story in an entirely imaginary environment. I met Angela Carter at a writer’s conference in Dublin and she showed me a small radio play she had written based on a collection of her stories called the Bloody Chamber. She suggested that it might make a small movie so I read it. Angela’s message in the Bloody Chamber was that behind these saccharine kids bedtime stories was real blood, flesh, hair, and a seething torrent of sexuality. I had a fascination with fairy tales and understood where she was coming from immediately.”

Jordan suggested that The Company of Wolves, a Bloody Chamber tale inspired by Little Red Hood, might provide a starting point for the other stories. “If there were various storytellers alongside a central grandma narrator we could create a branching structure, from one story to another and back to the granny. This would allow me to make a movie based on all the tales in Angela’s collection.” Bloody Chamber stories The Werewolf and Wolf-Alice worked their way into the finished screenplay and further tales-within-tales, from Angela’s original, inspired bravura sequences like a werewolf-infected wedding. A snoozing protagonist allowed the filmmaker freedom to move dream-like from story to story.

Next stop: fill the characters’ shoes. “This was a wonderful film to cast,” Jordan smiles. Angela Lansbury [The Manchurian Candidate, Murder She Wrote] starred as the grandmother; old-faithful Stephen Rea [V for Vendetta, The Crying Game] appeared as a werewolf who loses his head; and Terence Stamp [Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Star Wars Episode I] even stopped by the set one afternoon for an uncredited appearance. “We chose a ballet dancer, Micha Bergese, for the Prince of Darkness [lead werewolf]. He had never acted before but was quite wonderful. Danielle Dax, an underground star in an extreme rock band, played the role of a strange wolf girl who emerges from the village well.” Stealing the show was Sarah Patterson, a 12-year old actor whose uncanny balance of childhood innocence and adulthood experience makes The Company of Wolves one of cinema’s most memorable coming of age treats.

“Sarah accompanied a friend to auditions,” Jordan recalls. “I spotted her waiting, auditioned her and gave her the role. When you write a part for a child, you either end up with a child actress, which is generally bad news, or with someone who has never acted before. That was the first time I gave a role to someone inexperienced, but I’ve done it subsequently in The Butcher Boy and other films like The Miracle. In The Crying Game, Jay Davidson’s character could not have been played by an actor because you would have recognised him and known he was a man. Sarah had this particular kind of beauty and was very anxious to do it. Her parents were enlightened enough to let her play in this quite disturbing film.”

Jordan had always enjoyed horror and gothic movies, and although he was aware of the 1980’s post-modern werewolf revival led by The Howling and An American Werewolf in London, The Company of Wolves was more influenced by filmmakers like Jean Cocteau (Beauty and the Beast) and 1970’s Parisian pornographic art movies that embedded fairy tales with a salacious twist. The result is a film drenched in sensuality, richer than chocolate cake, and sporting enough themes and allegory to keep film students occupied indefinitely. At one point, Rosaleen climbs a large tree. When she reaches the top, a bird flies away leaving a nest with three eggs. An egg hatches, revealing tiny statuettes of human babies. She takes one home, but when she shows it to her parents the statuette cries. Help! Is there a Dr. Freud in the house?

The Company of Wolves played a part in the mid-80’s return to artificially designed sets. This was a time of spectacular children’s stories filmed in studio-constructed environments: Ridley Scott’s Legend, Wolfgang Peterson’s Neverending Story, Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal, amongst others. “Apart from the opening scenes at a house, the entire movie was filmed on set,” says Jordan. “I was lucky to discover a great designer called Anton Furst who realised the potential for the project. Anton’s instincts and talents were for those heavily designed expressionistic movies that were being made at the time. Anton created an adept way of creating a village and a series of forests using trees on rollers. We built a forest that could be transformed into another forest into another, until it became an endless forest even though we were only shooting at two stages in Shepperton [Middlesex, England].”

Eschewing that old chestnut about working with children or animals, Jordan’s cast of dogs, cats, pigeons, hedgehogs, chickens, rabbits, frogs and snakes, was enough to make a toddler look like a Laurence Olivier. Then, of course, there were the wolves. “Wolves, as you can understand, are very difficult to deal with. They’re wild animals and we had to adroitly combine real wolves with Malamutes. A Malamute is a cross between a husky and an Alsatian – it has a ridged spines which makes it look like a wolf,” explains Jordan.

Many of the film’s English crew had graduated from the Star Wars movies and considered Neil a complete lunatic. Let’s create a spring to summer to winter transformation in one shot, he would eagerly tell them – cue a mass rolling of crew eyes toward the heavens – but this was a young director at his most inventive, using all the tools at his disposal to create magical, crazy effects. These were pre-CG days of animatronics and although “special effects were fun”, limited finances [an estimated $2m budget for the entire shoot] posed challenges. “Some effects turned out great, others were ponderous, and I would perhaps change some of the editing of these scenes. I can now see the machinery working in the transformation sequence where Stephen Rea turns into a wolf, but the most spectacular effect was when the wolf came out of Micha Bergese’s mouth. Very simple, very graphic, but very visceral.”

As it stands, the ending of The Company of Wolves was not what Carter and Jordan had envisaged. “We constructed an ending that was absolutely beautiful but one which ultimately we could not deliver. Rosaleen was to awaken after all these dreams and stand upon her bed. Her mother and sister are outside the door and she bounces up and down then dives through the floor and vanishes, the ground rippling in her wake. We built a wax floor over a swimming pool but it was an impossible effect for us to realise with the resources we had, so we came up with the idea of an endless succession of beasts diving through a canvas. It was interesting, but it didn’t have the liberating effect of the ending we wanted. It’s something you could do quite easily today… you see it in commercials all the time.”

The Company of Wolves marked the beginning of a long relationship between Neil Jordan and producer Stephen Woolley, whose Palace Pictures (co-partnered by Nik Powell and Chris Brown) financed the film. Canon released it in America as a late-night gross-out feature, which was never going to work given the film’s aesthetic leanings, but in Europe the movie was a bona fide hit. Only when Neil toured the various continental countries with Mona Lisa did the cult success of Wolves strike home. An award for Best Film and Best Director from the London Critics Circle rubber-stamped the movie’s accomplishment.

Without The Company of Wolves, Neil Jordan’s grandest Hollywood foray to date – the Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise combo of Interview with a Vampire (1994) – may never have happened. Turn to page 105 of Anne Rice’s novel Tale of the Body Thief and you’ll discover that Louis (Interview with the Vampire’s hero) and prince of darkness Lestat watch Jordan’s film repeatedly. “Anne said that she wanted me to make Interview With A Vampire because The Company of Wolves was Lestat’s favourite movie,” Jordan says. The director was also ready to adapt Rice’s novel to the big screen for another reason.

“Angela wanted to make a vampire film, a similar treatment to her earlier fairy tale and werewolf themes. When I finished The Crying Game [1992] I was going to call her and return to the story but she died of lung cancer that year. I still have the outline she wrote and would love to return to it one day. It’s called Vampirella. So in the early 1990’s I was already thinking of doing a film about vampires and when [producer and record company mogul] David Geffen sent me the book Interview With A Vampire I was already primed to do it.”

While Jordan built on Wolves’ success with Mona Lisa (1985), the film’s star Sarah Patterson appeared in one typecast role (1988’s Snow White) before dropping from the radar. “Sarah lives in London,” says Neil. “Acting is something she didn’t really pursue but I have been in touch with her several times during the years. Now that you mention it, I must get in touch with her again.” Comfortable obscurity is a far better fate than that of production designer Anton Furst. After working on Full Metal Jacket and winning an Oscar for his fabulous depiction of Gotham City in Batman (1990), Furst tried in vain to find directing work before committing suicide in 1991.

Furst’s haunting landscapes live on in Jordan’s 1984 feature. The Company of Wolves’ ferret glove puppets, butterflies on strings, and other artistic flourishes has made the movie appear more quaintly theatrical with every passing year – an aesthetic foundation which time leaves untrammelled. This is no superficial horror flick, but a movie best watched with the analytical, creative mind one uses when reading a book. For Neil Jordan, “The Company of Wolves is a coming of age film about a young girl overcoming her imagined fears that were given to her by her grandmother and, by implication, society. She realises that these cautionary tales are hiding something that is in fact liberating.”

As a result of Angela and Neil’s creative partnership, The Company of Wolves transcends artificial category. It is neither horror, nor fantasy, nor a children’s film. At times it doesn’t even feel like a fairy tale. Instead it assumes the guise of a timeless and psychedelic daydream/nightmare, undulating and shifting beneath the audience’s gaze like the werewolves at the heart of the tale. For a moment at least, The Company of Wolves can transport you back in time to that Clapham house in 1983, dreaming of monster toadstools, swaying redwoods, and the big, bad wolf, with Neil Jordan and Angela Carter.

 

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 105 in 2005.

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From the Archive: Paddy Breathnach Interview

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Shrooms director Paddy Breathnach talks to Sheena Sweeney about his influences, the mushrooming Irish film industry and the magic of a little encouragement.

 

Five American college students arrive in Ireland to go on a camping ‘trip’ with their old college buddy Jack.  According to Jack, Ireland has the best magic mushrooms in the world, but in the best horror-flick tradition, psychedelic hallucinations soon turn into premonitions of death and teens start dropping like flies…

 

Paddy, you say you were really keen to make a horror movie – why was that?

 

I think ever since I did Ailsa a long time back, one of the things I was very interested in, even though it’s a long way from horror, was creating an atmosphere and a sense of characters in isolation. Moving with characters on their own, tracking them and having a very close connection with them, that’s something that horrors do all the time and I suppose that’s what I was interested in. It’s one of the genres that the images are often very beautiful and provocative, in a way that you don’t always get in drama.  Sometimes drama can be beautiful in a more picturesque way, whereas horrors can have a melancholy about them or have tones that you might not get a chance to explore otherwise.

 

 

There hasn’t been a really successful horror movie here yet, although Isolation (Billy O’Brian) was one of the best. Why do you think that is?

 

I haven’t seen Isolation so I can’t really comment on that and whether it cracked it or not, but I suppose, you know, it’s not just horror it’s a wide range of things. In any movie industry anywhere, for any ten or fifteen films that get made, one of them cracks it, one of them is good.  And the reality is that still not that many films are made in Ireland – Irish filmmaking is still quite young.  In Hollywood you make a film – for better or worse – and you get all that received wisdom.  You can react to it and say, ‘I don’t agree with you, I’m going to subvert that and go a different way,’ or else you can accept it and use it, but either way it helps clarify things and it pushes you on. At home I think we’re still at the stage where there isn’t received wisdom – we’re still reaching for those sorts of things.  But I think all these things are gradually getting better and better.  But why there haven’t been that many successful horrors…I just don’t think there’ve been that many attempts.  You had Dead Meat a few years ago and then Isolation…

 

About the Irish film industry, what do you think about it now, do you think things have begun to change over the last while?

 

Well, I haven’t seen everything but I think maybe a few things, you know, Lenny Abrahamson’s stuff (Adam and Paul, Garage) and John Carney (Once) in a funny way maybe, because all those people have been around for a while, they’ve been part of doing stuff for seven, eight, nine years, and now they’ve done a few things, learnt a few things, they’re coming back with a bit of wisdom. There’s some experience being brought to things.  And maybe it’s a good time in that sense.  I hate the politics of these things…for me the film business is a collaborative thing between writers, directors, producers, actors, with everyone bringing something to the table. Possibly, at the moment directors are bringing a little more to the table or maybe there’s a confidence in the directors.

 

Do you think it has anything to do with changes in the Film Board or anything like that?

 

You know, I think…I think in the last couple of years it’s been a very positive thing, and maybe a couple of years ago it would have been quite different.  And I’d definitely say Simon Perry (the then Head of the Irish Film Board) has a sense of the filmmaker about him. One of the good things about being in Ireland is that we’re quite critical of ourselves, we’re hard on ourselves and we don’t suffer fools gladly.  But maybe the other side of that, and I’d be one of the worst culprits for this in some ways, is that positive energy and encouragement can have an amazing effect. When you actually try to stimulate someone and put your arm around their shoulder and say, ‘listen that’s great what you did.  Well done.  What are you thinking of doing next?’  It’s amazing how that can push somebody on, maybe someone who’s uncertain about where they’re going. I think there’s more of that now, there’s a nice energy at the moment.

 

Do you live in LA now?

 

Well I’ve spent the last six months here, but I’m actually coming back to Ireland in two weeks time.  I might come back over here next year, it depends on the strike that’s looming here, a writer’s strike. It’s amazing how it affects the whole town and the industry, suddenly a lot of discussions stop happening, studios are sort of preparing for a possible lock-out.  I mean none of these things might happen, but everything’s kind of moving on a daily basis. It’s quite an interesting time here but not a great for setting anything up.

 

Now, obviously your movie has quite an American focus. Would you say your idea of success is to do well in Hollywood? 

 

To be honest with you, I kind of like eclectic things. One of the next things I’m planning is an Irish language Western set in the 1690’s, so that certainly doesn’t fit the Hollywood model. Then one of the things I’ve been thinking about doing for quite a while, which I’m doing with Mark O’Halloran (writer of Adam and Paul and Garage), is a musical about transvestites set in Cuba. So I’ve quite a lot of different things that I do, but one thing I found  in particular after Man About Dog that did very well in Ireland but didn’t travel, was that good international sales are very important. You need to have some degree of commercial success so you can raise money to do another film later on and being able to trade on yourself as a director maybe lets you do things that aren’t as commercial. And particularly in the horror genre, I think the fact that this was an American cast, just opened up foreign sales.

 

I counted seven different Financial sources in the credits for the film. What was the budget?

 

The budget was about four million, but I couldn’t tell you all the sources.

 

The horror genre is often analysed as being about ‘Otherness.’ A monstrous figure can stand for things like sexual deviation in Silence of the Lambs or femininity in films like Cat People. Did you have anything like that in mind when you were working on this? 

 

Well I don’t want to start talking about it too much because I don’t want to give away the plot. I think in this the otherness is the projection of fears that are based on stories.  Then the question ‘are the sources of your fears real or not?’ is posed, and I think the horror and tension are caused by the uncertainty of that.

 

And the idea that genre films are about trying to resolve a  ‘Difference’ of one sort of another…

 

In a way the film deconstructs that idea of difference.  It’s like: what’s the horror in the end?  In a sense the Otherness is a reflection of you.  That’s really what’s happening in it, the horror is you…In some ways it’s not strictly a horror film – it’s actually a mystery. The language of it, and the icons are horror but its structure is more like a mystery suspense, you know what I mean?

 

I do know what you mean, but I don’t know if I would agree…and this leads me into another question. I read you looked to Asian films for your influences and that really did come through.  And I love that school of horror…

 

I think they’re very interesting, and while I don’t think that I completely tapped into it, I think did manage to get part of it. But I think they do two things really, which is that they create horror in a modern environment in terms of the textures and fabrics of a modern house, phones and modern communications where the ghost is literally in the machine, and I think that’s great…

 

Sorry to interrupt you, but just on what you were saying about it being a mystery, the reason I’m saying I don’t know if I would agree, is that I would see it much more in the vein of those Asian movies where it’s not really mystery as much as fear, it’s an attempt to create a sense of pure fear. I think it’s quite a Lynchian thing as well…like when Tara (played by Lindsey Haun) looks around from behind a tree down the pathway to see if she can see the Black Brother, yes, it’s mysterious but it’s more a sense of….

 

Dread

 

Exactly….

 

You sort of know you’re going to see this thing and this dread reaches you.  Yeah.  The other thing is – generally a lot of modern horrors do it, but the Asians do it very well – and that’s playing on female vulnerability by having female protagonists but then sometimes connecting that to rage. I think that’s an interesting thing.  It’s something that’s often been done in masculine films in the past and I’ve seen it in female roles in contemporary horrors, like The Exorcism of Emily Rose and stuff like that. Where you have that idea of physical rage and very intense fear, so you’re seeing female roles where they’re not controlled, you know what I mean?  Outside a very mannered, controlled social role, you’re able to lift the lid off the box. I think it’s interesting that in a lot of contemporary horrors women haven’t been afforded that kind of emotional rage…

 

Absolutely, because women are traditionally seen just as a function of the male lead….

 

Yeah, in the past, those going to see horrors would have been male and that’s not necessarily the case anymore. It might be the case in terms of the aficionados, the absolute anoraks of horror, but the female part of the audience has shot up a lot.

 

So that’s the reason you would explore the idea of female protagonists rather than you being a feminist?

 

[Laughs] No, no.  Not that, but it’s just an observation about the Asian films…

 

And what Asian films in particular would have resonated with you?

 

I think some of the main ones Dark Water, Ring, The Grudge, and Two Sisters as well, in terms of atmosphere and design.  And then Onibaba in terms of the visual side, and then there’s a whole series of ones like Whispering Stairs, and lots of the kind of B-movie, schlockier ones, that aren’t necessarily great films, but have lots of great sequences in them.  So I watched a lot of those for the atmosphere.

 

I noticed in the production notes that Lindsey Haun said when you were casting her you sent her I Went Down by way of familiarising her with your work.  Is that your favourite amongst your own films?

 

Well in different ways, but probably Ailsa and I Went Down. I have certain affection for them…

 

Were they good to you, those films?

 

I think different films have different strengths.  For example in Ireland, Man About Dog did critically badly, but for me I got a great kick out of it because people went to see it. Some people who’d never been to see an Irish film went to see it and it just gave them a laugh and they enjoyed it and that for me is an important thing. And by that I don’t mean that everything has to do hugely well at the box office, but if it has a resonance, if it finds an audience that’s a great thing. In terms of Man About Dog as an action comedy, I think it’s quite well put together.  But probably, the things you do earliest you develop an affection for.

 

You’ve mentioned Man About Dog a few times, did that hurt when it wasn’t received as well as you might have hoped?

 

Em. It annoys you sometimes, but because it did well at the box office it kind of mediates that a lot.

 

But do you not have the sense as a filmmaker, that you just want other people to like it? 

 

It’s not the approval, what I would say is that you want it to be treated fairly…

 

And you felt that that wasn’t the case?

 

I think at times it wasn’t, because I think sometimes it wasn’t reviewed for what it was.

 

Within its genre you mean?

 

Yeah. It was very specifically for a young male audience, like films like Road Trip and American Pie and all that kind of thing. I’m not saying it was the same as those films, but it was in that area and I don’t think it was treated quite in the same way.  And I think maybe there’s an expectation in Ireland for an Irish film that’s going out, that it will please everybody and that it will catch everybody in a certain way.  And I think maybe there was a disappointment that it wasn’t another I Went Down. By all means, I’m sure a lot of comments about it might be very true, but I think quite a few missed what the point of it was.  And I think also we were maybe a little bit unlucky, because I think some of the reviewers who’d seen it and liked it didn’t end up being the ones that reviewed it in the end.  So you know, it’s a numbers game. Out of five to ten significant reviews, two of those could’ve gone a different way. Then, you know, it wouldn’t have felt quite as harsh.  But you make your movie, you learn from it, and you move on.

 

Are you saying that if the Irish film community want the standard of Irish film to improve they have to stop viewing them as peculiarly Irish, and view them on an international scale where something like that would be compared to American Pie as opposed to I Went Down?

 

Or Intermission or another Irish film…

 

Right, yeah, something within the same genre as opposed to within the body of work of the filmmaker or Irish cinema in general.

 

I mean Jesus Christ, you know there’s a very wide range of films I might enjoy depending on what mood I’m in. Equally, in terms of the filmmaking community, Damien O’Donnell might make something brilliant in a way that I could never do.  Like I think Heartlands was a fantastic film…

 

And finally, you seemed very comfortable with the subject matter of Shrooms, did you ever have a period in your life where you did a lot of mushrooms?

 

No [laughs] I didn’t.  But there were other people involved in the project who definitely supplemented my knowledge…

 

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 119 in 2007.

 

 

 

 

 

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From the Archive: Degeneration Gap

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Bob Quinn shares his thoughts on the state of filmmaking in Ireland in the early years of the 21st century.

There is a rule of thumb which says that whoever can write a personal cheque for a million is a rogue and a thief. Another rule states that whoever can’t is a loser.

Are these also the ground rules for film? That nothing counts, not family or tribe, flag or country, not love or hatred, good or evil, only The Movie and the proof of its existence: money. The latter certainly brings clarity, melts the elements of talent, creativity and ethics into one useful solvent: corruptibility.

How fares the filmmaker’s canvas in the Irish microcosm of this western experiment?

Are actors now only people who aspire to do commercials? Are novelists defined only as those who produce clit-lit? Are writers really people who manufacture soap opera dialogue on a piecework basis. Is everybody actually working on a film script? I know that producers manqué make deals, accountants and lawyers sense spare fat and move in. But must directors sublimate their imagination to technique? Are film editors allowed an attention spell of but three seconds max? Is the real subplot a comfortable life? Yes, film schools teach words like semiotics to get their cut from wannabe’s and film boards offer money for dressing short film mutton up as if it were expensive lamb. It is certain that the keeper of new certainties, the marketeer, makes silk purses out of sows ears and that the tabloidisation of all media reinforces the illusion. But do we really need more moolah, must the global fundamentalists control the supply, must good cinema die? And so on and so forth, blah, blah, blah.

I’ve been asking these rhetorical questions for too many years and even I am getting tired of the device. As the commissioning person from TV3 serenely confided to me recently, in a drink situation: You’re a fool, you’ve always been a fool. Pressed for elaboration she angrily told me to fuck off – twice. I did not obey, never have. But the lady was right. The illusion of power may make for arrogance but sometimes it can hit the nail on the head.

Speaking in Tongues

I had long before slumped into this fool condition after exposure to such accomplished films as Trojan Eddie, When Brendan Met Trudy, Spin the Bottle, I Went Down, Dead Bodies, Man About Dog, Capital Letters and all the other works of daring tightrope walkers, the new breed of Irish filmmaker which tries to grapple with Sir A.J. O’Reilly’s dictum: Ireland is a good place to tog out in but the real game is elsewhere.

IWentDownSmall

Oddly, we are now in the same boat, Sir Tony and I, in that his and my generation is properly obsolete. Our only consolation is begrudging film criticisms applied according to taste i.e. social, economic and political context ignored; music too loud and too much; dialogue tripping off the tongue too rapidly, (how The West Wing won), most of it lost in the supranational dialect of dart, or in incomprehensible Belfast, Dublinese or fake Culchie; the repetition of the word ‘fuck’ as a substitute for humour; the cuts of pop video velocity. Ultimately, an air of desperation to achieve currency in an unforgiving market. Alas for us, our younger children and nieces and nephews ‘get it’, sense that these entertaining films truly represent their uprooted world of total insecurity. My generation, not reared on mtv, is lost in this new dispensation.

Gawd be with the oul days when Goethe could finish Faust in his old age. Buñuel and Fellini did great work from relative zimmerframes, Huston made The Dead wearing an oxygen mask. Tarkovsky and Kieslowski died a little younger – prematurely aged by horror at the discovery that market freedom is as unforgiving as Stalinism. Bertolucci, Altman, Godard and co., bless them, still sail aristocratically above it all.

Nevertheless the audience for the art of the 21st century is now under twenty-five, ne c’est pas? No, said the ex-head of United Artists to me recently as we together furtively enjoyed a fine print of Great Expectations. In the USA, he pronounced sadly, the target audience is fifteen. The reader knows that Ireland is now a figment of us economic fantasies – as Morgan O’Sullivan put it: ‘We’re a branch office to America’ [Film Ireland Issue 95 –Ed.] – so where does that leave us? Competing with the usa-made teenflicks that represented 19 of the world box office Top 20 in 2003. Is that the base pressure that’s on filmmakers? This July I counted 119 cinema screens in Dublin alone. No Irish film was being screened, not even at the National Film Institute. Could there not be a continuous repertory of the by now substantial backlog of Irish film on show in this public institution? A good film has no sell by date.

In these strange times is it true that the more intelligent the script the less the chance of financing, the better the product the narrower the exhibition? For veteran filmmakers the telephone rings less frequently and then only from students doing theses. Age is a great leveller. Everyone over that quarter century watershed is a cinematic curmudgeon. Must we now reverse the sixties adage and say: never trust anybody under thirty?

Have Mickey, Will Travel

I saw All About Eve again in Paris last year. The likes of such a witty and literate script could hardly be made again. Older lovers of theatrical film must now search beyond the anglophone world to enjoy cinema. We can’t forever depend on the Coen Bros. We look for good stories, long confident takes, little blood, less sex, confident words in English, but must increasingly turn to films by furriners other than Yanks. We have become imaginative migrants to Iran, India, France, South America (subtitles can also turn a poor film into a good script): we are cinema tourists. But we must savour the occasional, the accidental gem stumbled on in the oysterbed of youthful consumption here. There are reassuring films which we may with luck come upon, About Schmidt, for instance. But they are generally lost in the ocean of tellyfilm in the cinema, capsized in the gushing springs of youth. I was among that minority at the Galway Film Fleadh a couple of years ago which laughed hysterically at every tiny Mylesian nuance of Wesley Burroughs’s Rat – a miracle film that never travelled, I’m told: not a naked thigh to be seen. Which brings me to a rather intimate point.

Considering that the Guests of the Nation theme had been previously worked out (by O’Connor and Behan inter alia), might The Crying Game have travelled so far if the heroine hadn’t revealed her mickey?

cryinggame1

This taste for tumescent gimmickry has been gradual and its coming has been, like Philip Larkin’s sex, too late for me. A stain is left on life but not that stain which Beckett had in mind. But, hmm, it is thirty years since Ronnie Saunders of the long-defunct Irish Film Theatre at Earlsfort Terrace told me that even his avant-garde audience only packed out for tits and bums; a poor print of The Decameron, daring for its time, was showing. In retrospect, weren’t we shockingly deprived of titillation? Alright, there was buggery in Deliverance, gay lavatory love in Reefer and the Model, gay kisses in Sunday Bloody Sunday, Kerrygold lubricant in Last Tango in Paris but, when you think of it, nothing explicit: respectable body parts only, all others powerfully suggested. The staple diet was love, kisses and tomato ketchup. Nowadays the biological imperative is naked and in our guilty faces. What next? Faeces, anybody?

On another occasion, when I queued at the old ift for a second house of 8 1/2, the emerging audience looked as if Fellini had cast them: lovers of film had osmosed into his grotesque extras. Corollarologically their children, the majority audience of to-days films, seem to be extras in a film version of Margaret Mead’s Growing Up in Samoa; they look, oh my god, you know, so like de Caprio, so beautiful, so sated. So sad. But they get it.

The optimistic view is that, in a twisted way, cinema now more explicitly reflects the suppressed fears, dreams and desires of the targeted audience who then imitate the actors. I began smoking like Bogart when I was nineteen. For the young, digi/celluloid narcissism appears to be the main, self-referential reality. Marketeers have learned this lesson well, quickly identified those with most disposable income. Middle aged parents and oaps need not apply. Marketeers teach distributors teach financiers teach film boards teach television schedulers teach producers teach directors teach omniplexes who teach audiences. Recently in public, an rté executive delicately referred to the sorry situation as the ‘exigencies of the market’. tv people follow fashion rapidly. Come to think of it, they and their Big Brother, the advertisers, are largely responsible for the mess. We who are old and grey and nodding by the radio are thrown occasional crumbs. For instance I liked How Harry Became a Tree. It had a mittel-European surreality which is an old-fashioned taste, now called intellectual snobbery. I don’t think that film travelled far either. Nevertheless I wish to be inundated, soon please, with immigrant cinematic sensibilities from Eastern Europe and Africa.

how-harry-became-a-tree

Starting Small

I saw these developments coming long ago but let me now, without a blindfold, face the only pertinent truth: after forty years in film and tv I still can’t write the above definitive personal cheque for a million. I can buy my round but I am a loser, backing the wrong nag. Which nag? Nag, nag,nag, maybe.

Instead of being focussed on making films to provide a cosy lifestyle I foolishly took the thorny Diego Rivera dictum literally: if it’s not propaganda it’s not art. In mitigation it occurs to me to ask filmmakers what, apart from an ego trip, is film for, if not to influence the weltgeist? Does it do so? Does it ever? It does like fuck. There, I said it. But if deluded enough to want to change the world, start small: say, with a small Atlantic island whose hinterland virtues were totally denigrated and filleted for Bord Fáilte fodder; its hidden people buried alive, their history dismantled, regarded as rural idiocy by Stickies who had turned ‘cúl le cine’, ignored and overwhelmed by similar opportunist minds on a provincial learning curve in Dublin. The horse I backed was a small community in the West which represented for me the only coherent voice in this raucous trading post: the bilingual people of South Conamara who actually knew the us and the uk intimately, whose sweat had built those faraway places, who were nearer to Boston than Dublin before Thatcher or her Irish gauleiters Harney, MacDowell and McCreevy were spawned. But this community, to which I subsequently attached myself like parasitical lichen to bedrock, still clung to its communal identity which had nothing to do with official nationalism. They and their fluent language were a tangible challenge. If we couldn’t include them – on their terms! – in our weltanschauung, what chance had Travellers, American indians or black babies in our scheme of things? Come to think of it….

Anyway, I spent over thirty years highlighting muintir Chonamara, trying to persuade the monoglots of the east that these people were more than Boucicault poitín makers or gormless navvies, much more than an excuse for the cúpla focal; that they were tough, hard-working, sharp survivors, way ahead of the game and also the repository of a pagan tradition and mythology as basic and universal as those which every decent artist in history, as well as every political demagogue, has dabbled in for inspiration. I think of Wagner, Bartók, O’Riada, Picasso, Grimm, Maupassant, Keating, Campbell. It wasn’t inspiration I needed, just an end to romantic prejudices against South Conamara and its people (which, as with much prejudice, is based on urban guilt). When times were bad, I recorded their emigrant lives in London, in Boston, in Germany. Now that times are good I’ve lost interest. To be honest, it would take too much of my diminishing energy to tackle the fascinating subject of their childrens’ bourgeoisification: no more symmetrical and self-sufficient potato ridges but a proliferation of motor mowers, deep freezers, satellite dishes, septic tanks and suburban bungalows. And the kids now play in Simpsonspeak. More power to their evolutionary spirit; adapt or perish and to hell with the planet. A comfortable life is all.

Despite this early realisation, I and some native fellow conspirators put South Conamara on silver screens a hundred times, paid it attention. What was the fruit of these labours?

Perhaps a mite of demystification, no more.

Perhaps also, and quite unintentionally, barefoot bimbos as Gaeilge, a soap opera in Irish but a growing respect for documentary film. Who’s complaining except Kevin Myarse? TG4 is a broadcaster that still commands a smidgen of respect only because its linguistic brief has so far inhibited its becoming quite as stale, predictable and profitable as its motherhouse in Donnybrook or the CanWest3 invention up in Tallaght. tv in general may be debased but it is still the real battleground, a position that must be retrieved by filmmakers; good cinema in the free market anglophone world is a museum. Until, perhaps, somebody is fool enough to make the next ‘first feature film’ as Gaeilge.

Yes, I’m still ranting: it’s like smoking, an addiction that confuses the taste buds. Who else but me could have seen Damien O’Donnell’s comedic East Is East as racist tragedy?

Slimming Down

To return to the main theme: has not the new world of homogeneity (which depends on exclusion and inequality!) made the over twenty-fives cinematically redundant? It has certainly overwhelmed my own modest, if eccentric, ambitions. So I happily continue with the logic of the loser.

But stay!

There are intimations that the horse of Irish self-respect is, for all the right stubborn reasons, riverdancing its way back through the jemmied stable door, overcoming its self-disgust. The world works in mysterious ways. For a small instance, more young people are trying to learn Irish. Thousands more are poking the bows of their fiddles into the dopey eyes of boybands. Soon the audience might even dance to the music instead of just drinking to it. More filmmakers may slim down to make realisable documentaries for TV rather than imitation movies for investors. And give their minds a holiday from film, like going to the theatre, reading books – but only if theatre people stop insulting film as something any ego can turn his/her hand to. Some good documentaries might be made, films that do not confuse ‘daring’ with exposed flesh. Isn’t it strange that not a single decent documentary has emerged about the political crookery of the past thirty years? Safe hatchet jobs on ageing members of a moribund Church, yes. But politicos or millionaires? Even when the threat of litigation has vanished with the tribunals? No. Forget the stolid, bourgeois state of the Nation, Joyce industry boredom that passes for documentary. Must we always wait for Michael Moore? Why do we think three-chip mini dv and computer programmes were invented? To produce imitation Rembrandts? No, to catch reality in flight.

Whatever develops, I won’t have time to write that personal cheque for a million which may remain the only important thing. Too late to get smart, to practise networking.

Never mind, timing is not everything. There’s always one last small film – in my case every couple of years for the past thirty years. But how will young and more streetwise Irish filmmakers survive without too much compromise or disillusion? I quoted it twenty years ago and I’ll do it again: The artist is a micro-organism that can survive in a chemical solution that would dissolve a rhinoceros’ hoof.

The motto? Keep on keeping on and good luck to you There is always hope.

And of course, I made up those loathsome rules in the first paragraph. Here’s a better one: You’re not dead ‘til you’re buried, so don’t fret.

 

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 100 in 2004.

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Interview: Director Sé Merry Doyle talks about new film ‘Dreaming The Quiet Man’

Director Sé Merry Doyle talks to Charlene Lydon about his new film Dreaming The Quiet Man, which is released in cinemas this Friday.

John Ford’s 1952 classic The Quiet Man is often a controversial issue with Irish people. Though we may be proud of Ireland’s involvement in the classic Hollywood film, the exaggerated cultural stereotypes it portrays can sometimes offend. The film has become the subject of acclaimed filmmaker Sé Merry Doyle’s (Jimmy Murakami: Non-Alien, Alive Alive-O) latest documentary. I sat down with Sé as he put the finishing touches on his new film Dreaming The Quiet Man.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the documentary is the inclusion of an interview with Maureen O’Hara who has broken her silence about her time working on The Quiet Man for a very candid and, indeed, delightful interview. Now ninety years old, O’Hara often avoids discussing the film as, Sé explains, ‘she doesn’t like anyone taking on The Quiet Man because she doesn’t think they [filmmakers] can get it.’ Despite her reported misgivings she talks animatedly, honestly and fondly about her time working on the film, her rather complex relationship with John Ford and her admiration of the The Quiet Man. Sé was pleased with how the interview brings the documentary together. ‘She just gave the most wonderful interview. You can feel the energy. She has some extraordinary insight into the film’. Her insight into John Ford himself was invaluable to the documentary, Sé adds. ‘She knew all the nuances and she knew what a bastard he was. As she would say, he was the greatest son-of-a-bitch, but he was the greatest director as well. For me, as a director, it was a proud moment. I just thought, somehow, as the last person who could throw light on John Ford as a friend, that was really powerful. If I hadn’t had it in the film I would always have been thinking, ‘oh man, I wonder what Maureen O’Hara would have said.’

The genesis of the documentary is a rocky one, as Sé explains. It started out as sort of an argument against the film’s detractors. ‘When I hear someone say it’s a piece of tosh, I say, “how could you say that? This film was made by John Ford!” He’s regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers in the world ever. How could he make a piece of tosh about the country his parents were born in? And that was really enough to get me going on it.’
Sé attended the anniversary celebration of the The Quiet Man in the ifi with all the Quiet Man ‘maniacs’ who were also in attendance. After shooting some footage of that event Sé then travelled to Cong in Co. Galway where the film was shot to take a look at the lasting effect the film has had on the town. This trip was made before any funding had been secured, and the team consisted of just himself and a cameraman. ‘We just hung around and I met Nancy and Jack Murphy who own Cohan’s hardware store, which, in the film, was Cohan’s pub, and they were just incredibly ordinary but very exciting people. The reason I went to Cong was because everybody involved was very old and I was afraid that they were going to die. It’s what you call time-dependent material.’

With this renewed sense of urgency, Sé, armed with a pilot of the footage from Cong and from the anniversary screening, began to seek financing but found it more difficult than anticipated. ‘There was no interest from any of the institutions that we went to. They were all so prejudiced against the film… People at rté felt it was too local, that it was a silly Irish film. They just didn’t get it.’

It was with Alan Maher, (Irish Film Board) that Sé finally got the penny to drop with someone, ‘Alan immediately got what the argument was, what my hope was. I wanted to shoot a lot of stuff, do a lot of interviews. It was a chance encounter with him, maybe it’s like that with a lot of films. There’s always somebody who gets it and you hope that it lands and it landed on him.’ With the bsé/ifb on board, Sé secured further funding from bai and tg4. The documentary then began to take shape and a host of John Ford admirers were interested in coming on board to discuss why The Quiet Man is indeed more than just a bit of blarney!
Upon assembling the first strands of the documentary Sé realised that the documentary he really wanted to make was not a defence of the film, but rather a film about John Ford and his ‘obsession’ with Maurice Walsh’s story. In demonstrating the passion Ford felt for making The Quiet Man, the reputation it has for being a scourge on the Irish international identity could perhaps be waylaid and replaced with the respect that Sé feels it deserves. With the title changed from The Quiet Man: Millstone or Milestone to the less contentious Dreaming The Quiet Man, the documentary had found its focus, and instead of a debate, it had become a celebration of the film itself and the cinematic master and enigmatic figure, John Ford.

Central to the documentary is the notion that The Quiet Man is really a masked biography of the director himself, who was born in America to Irish parents who raised him with songs and stories from their homeland and whose mother idealised Ireland. Sé explains, ‘What I’m propagating is that he turns this film into his own biography.’ Sé goes on to point out some of the similarities between the central character Seán Thornton (played by John Wayne), and John Ford himself. ‘Ford was a very cantankerous man and his outsider spirit is explored in the film. His obsession with Mary-Kate – he was having an affair with Katherine Hepburn at the time, whose name was Kate and his wife’s name was Mary.’ Sean Thornton’s yearning for Ireland, the idealism surrounding it and the feeling of being an outsider in the place you considered ‘home’ are all aspects that Ford could relate to and are important in understanding the intentions of the film.

The segment that was screened for me spoke volumes about the content and central discussion in the film. The segment included a typically colourful and impassioned interview with Martin Scorsese in which he discusses the scene where Seán Thornton (John Wayne) first arrives on the train in Castletown. Seán walks through the train station to find the horse and cart that will bring him to Inisfree and Scorsese makes the point that Seán is literally walking from the real world to the fantasy/mythological world that is Inisfree. Sé points out ‘Inisfree is not Ireland. Castletown is, but Inisfree is an imaginary place that goes back to pre-Ireland, pre-Christian ritual and all that sort of thing. So he’s playing with all these rituals. But at the same time, Seán Thornton is an American. John Ford knows that the central character is an American who has a dewy-eyed vision of Ireland and the Irish people are playing up to the American’s stereotype of us. So he’s playing with that.’
One of the more common criticisms of the film by its detractors is that Ford has created a damaging mockery of Irish cultural identity. This point is effectively countered by Sé by proposing that Ford is celebrating the mythological elements of Irish culture and playing with the idealism that is often attached to the ‘homeland’ of so many Americans, Ford included.

The documentary takes a look at many areas of interest for Quiet Man fans, but is also historically interesting for any cinéphile or indeed any Irish person. The effect the film has had on Cong is remarkable and the archive footage that is included in the documentary from the making of the film is an invaluable look at Ireland in the ’50s. Interviews with Cong locals Jack and Nancy Murphy are insightful and endearing, and contrast well with the archive footage, which shows the glamour and excitement in the air at the time of shooting. It was unlike anything rural Galway had seen before and the impression the film made on the local economy is still evident some sixty years later.

Now putting the finishing touches on what he describes as ‘the most difficult piece of work I’ve ever done’, the film Sé has created is unlike any other documentary about The Quiet Man. Neither a defence or a detraction, the documentary attempts to reconcile the cultural hyperbole with the knowingly playful use of stereotype and idealism that Ford perpetrates within the film. Sé concludes ‘I suppose all I can say about The Quiet Man is that I’m trying to open a door. Obviously anyone who loves the film will enjoy it, but it will open a whole new perspective on what they were saying. There was a genius at work here, and Ford did spend the guts of twenty years getting it to happen’.

 

This article first appeared in Film Ireland: The Winter Issue – Issue 135

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Issue 132 Spring 2010 Irish Playwrights & Screenwriters Guild: Terry McMahon

 

Over the coming weeks Film Ireland will publish online the entire back catalogue of articles written by members of the Irish Playwrights and Screenwriters Guild that have appeared in Film Ireland magazine.  These popular articles give an insight into the creative process used by each writer.  Terry McMahon, writer/director of the recent cinema release Charlie Casanova, wrote the first piece in Film Ireland 132 Spring 2010 which was published on April 1st 2010.

 

Two Actors, a Camera and a Taboo

 

With over a hundred Fair City episodes under his belt and several screenwriting awards, Terry McMahon talks about every writer’s Holy Grail: completion.

 

I got a second tattoo recently. The first one I got a few years back in a tattoo parlour sandwiched between a Chinese takeaway and a strip club on Hollywood and Vine when Daryl Hannah flew me out to Los Angeles, first class no less, to write a script for her. Living in a council flat on Dorset Street with my missus and young kid, and, having just written my first screenplay, I was naïve enough to think the world would give a damn. It didn’t. But Daryl did, and for a long time I kept the stub of that advance cheque; her name on it and the three most exciting words I’d ever read: twenty-five thousand dollars.

 

Writing originals, along with more screenplay commissions, I was also paid to portray absurdly unconvincing stereotypes as an actor. Things were dandy. I was working on scripts with the cream of a generation, Damien O’Donnell, Paddy Breathnach and Richie Smyth; hell, I’d even been feted in Cannes and Hollywood where they gave me screenwriting awards. My screenplays were going to be made into movies. No doubt about it. Fast forward to more commissions, a couple more kids, a home owned by the banks instead of the council, a hundred plus episodes of Fair City, and thirty pounds of spare tyre stomach hanging above an increasingly flaccid fallacy. Every script turned from green-lit certainty to amber-dark shit. Not one movie made. Not even a short. Not even an opening title sequence.

 

Frustrated

 

So I did what any frustrated hack would do. I got words tattooed onto my arm: ‘The Art is in the Completion. Begin.’ It was 3 am, near Christmas, and, to distract me from my need to scratch the ink burn on my arm, I pondered why I had become immersed in the soul-raping loneliness of writing? It wasn’t cash. It wasn’t fame. It wasn’t sex. (Whoever boasted, ‘I fucked a really hot writer last night?’) And then I remembered what I’d loved in the first place: the simple compulsion of two actors, a camera and a taboo. I emailed in my unknown-to-me-at-the-time final episode of Fair City, then typed a message into that bizarre funky funhouse Facebook:

 

Intend shooting no-budget Charlie Casanova, a provocatively dark satire, in the first couple of weeks of January. Need cast, equipment, locations, and a lot of balls. Any takers? Script at www.terrymcmahon.org. This is sincere so bullshitters fuck off in advance. Thank you.’

 

Lies

 

The standard lies are learned early in life: the cheque is in the mail; I won’t cum inside you; I won’t mess with your script. Sure as night follows day, writers get fucked. Standard contracts are written in ink but writers’ contracts are negotiated in Vaseline, and, when you pull your underwear back up, you discover everybody and everything, including the used lubricant, has secured more rights than you, and probably a co-credit too. Not that I’m complaining. Writing has been damn good to me. I consider it a humbling privilege to make a living from it. And there are occasions when collaborating with remarkable people whose sole intention is to elevate your words from script to screen is sublime. However, when the author’s contribution is valued at the standard 2.5% of the entire budget, it remains clear, in this gorgeous love affair, who is the pimp and who is the whore. I had no equipment, no cast, no crew, no budget, but I had a script, and a taboo. It took eleven seconds for someone to respond. Within twenty-four hours, a hundred and sixty more responses. A mass blind date was set, and, with me as writer and director, against the oddest of odds, the first day of principle photography was set for four weeks away.

 

Weirdo

 

Now we’re about to edit our strange little movie, and, like the weirdo you try to avoid but end up getting drunk with, it has character, balls, and is unlike anything you’ve known before. Does that mean it’s good? Who the hell knows? You’ll decide that for yourself. What I do know is this jaded tattooed hack-whore took that cobwebbed script out of a drawer and is now somehow editing a movie. The only gig in town, Fair City, is no more, and the bank manager wants to know how in hell I’m going to honour my debts and I want to know how in hell I’m going to feed my kids, but I don’t despair. From equipment to locations, everything was donated; everybody worked for nothing and the ensemble cast, led by Emmett Scanlan and Leigh Arnold, were courageous beyond measure. The crew were mostly in their early twenties; diligent, passionate, fearless, and an honour to work with. If these kids are Ireland’s future, then, despite the incompetence and corruption, our future is bright.

www.terrymcmahon.org

www.script.ie

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Spring 2010 issue 132, published 1st April 2010.

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Out Now: Film Ireland: The Summer Issue 2012 – Issue 141

Yes it’s raining; yes it’s freezing – but that won’t stop us celebrating the fact that this year’s Summer Issue of Film Ireland magazine is out now. As you can tell from the grooviest of covers, this issue is a scorcher. So wrap up warm, bring an umbrella and celebrate the start of an Irish summer with our latest filmtabulous issue.

In this issue:

Irish Animators for Annecy

Anna Rodgers assesses the Irish animation scene.

In the Bronx

Niall McKay meets director Macdara Vallely to talk about his new feature, Babygirl.

It’s in the Post

Paul Webster takes a look at the Irish post-production scene.

In the Limelight

Gordon Gaffney shines a light on the JDIFF Irish Talent Spotlight.

Dublin’s Fair City

Niamh Creely talks to Irish location manager Peter Conway about shooting in Dublin.

 Grand Masters

Paul Callanan at the 23rd Cork French Film Festival on guests  Pierre Étaix and Jean-Claude Carrière.

The Making of Moon

Shane Perez  reports on the fascinating Galway Film Centre masterclass on the making of Duncan Jones’ Moon.

Demanding Audiences

Niall Kitson checks out a new wave of online services that are putting pressure on distribution models

Moore Please

Film Ireland catches up with the Oscar®-nominated director of  The Secret of Kells, Tomm Moore.

Moving Pitchers

Niamh Creely sharpens her pencil for the UNTITLED Screenwriting Competition and Story Campus.

Distribution

Maeve Clancy explores the world of distribution in Film Ireland’s comic page.

Sounding Off

Nadine O’Regan investigates why Stella Days upset the residents of Borrisokane.

 

Plus all our regulars:

Up Close – with Anjelica Huston, plus Paul Rowley on ‘My Inspiration’.

Your Updates – all the latest Irish film news.

On Set – Rory Cashin on the set of Mark O’ Connor’s latest, King of the Travellers

Spotlight – Steven Galvin takes in the sounds of the Casbah with Safinez Bousbia, director of El Gusto.

ReviewsAlbert Nobbs, The Other Side of Sleep, The Pier, Stella Days, This Must Be the Place

Festivals – all the latest festival reports & previews

ShortSpace – the latest ShortSpace short film news, plus Mark Noonan on ‘How I Short’.

Filmbase News – all the latest from Filmbase

Equipment – we get our hands on the RED Scarlet camera.

MEDIA Desk – news & dates to keep in your MEDIA Diary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Film Ireland 136 Spring 2011: Best of Both Worlds ‘Citadel’ and ‘Outcast’

(Aneurin Barnard in Citadel)

With Ciarán Foy’s Citadel gaining rave reviews stateside after its premiere at the SXSW festival, we revisit our ‘Best of Both Worlds’ article from Film Ireland 136 Spring 2011.

 

Luke McManus talks to some Irish directors who are forging ahead with Irish-Scottish co-productions. 

 

Two countries divided by a narrow stretch of water that share a Celtic heritage, a love of strong whiskey and an embattled native tongue called Gaelic – if Ireland and Scotland are not quite sibling nations, they surely must be close cousins.

 

The combination of geographical proximity and cultural synergy, as well as a lively historical spider’s web of migration, plantation, exile and return means that there is a natural affinity between the nations. It’s a relationship that has rich potential for creative expression, and there appears to be a growing trend for producers and creative talent from both countries to band together.

 

There have been four feature co-productions between Scotland and Ireland in the past four years, including feature debuts from Ciarán Foy and Colm McCarthy.

 

Outcast is an outstanding urban horror starring James Nesbitt (Bloody Sunday) and Kate Dickie (Red Road) and was directed by Hiberno-Scottish filmmaker Colm McCarthy. The film was a co-production between John McDonnell and Brendan McCarthy of Dublin’s Fantastic Films and Eddie Dick (True North) of Makar Productions in Edinburgh.

 

Director Colm McCarthy embodies the intertwining dna of the two countries. ‘I’m a Scottish-Irish coproduction myself, as is my brother who wrote Outcast with me. My dad is from Cork, my mum is from Edinburgh. I was born in Scotland, spent five years of my childhood there, and most of my adult life in Dublin.’

 

Producer Brendan McCarthy instantly fell for Colm’s richly detailed vision. ‘I loved it. We started to see how we could pull it together. I’d met Eddie Dick through David Collins [managing director of Samson Films] and we got on well so I sent him the script. I thought he might not like it, but he actually loved it so we started to work together on it.’

 

Shooting in Edinburgh had always been a key aspect of director Colm McCarthy’s vision for Outcast. ‘I always wanted to shoot in Scotland, in a particular location in Edinburgh, where I lived as a teenager.’ The production then moved to Studio Solas, the former Roger Corman facility in Connemara.

 

Dublin-Glasgow

Ciarán Foy’s Citadel is a feature that is now in editing after a shoot split between Dublin and Glasgow. Developed by Katie Holly at Blinder Films, the production was shared with Glasgow’s Sigma Films, who have produced some of the best Scottish films of recent years (Red Road, Hallam Foe)

 

The young Dublindirector has been working on the project since the completion of his award-winning short film The Faeries of Blackheath Woods.

 

Citadel is about a chronic agoraphobic trapped in the council estate from hell. The decision to shoot in Scotland was not necessarily derived from the script. Foy took a look at his native city before opting to head across the water. ‘We considered shooting in Dublin and in Glasgow. In the end, Glasgow had the necessary tower blocks for the script and it was also going to be cheaper to shoot there.’

 

Of course, support from public bodies is an important factor in the financing of independent features. In the case of Outcast, Scottish Screen didn’t come on board immediately and were keen on further rewrites to the script before they would commit. In the end, their creative input proved very useful to the production.

 

Producer Brendan McCarthy joined the chorus of praise for the Scottish equivalent of the Film Board and also noted the strong contribution from the Irish Film Board. ‘Alan Maher was brilliant to work with as well, he got it instinctively and he had confidence in Colm and the team around him.’

 

‘There has to be a rapport between the producers, an understanding about the creative journey to be undertaken as well as a responsibility to deliver on budget,’ says Emma Scott of the Irish Film Board. While she admits that co-production brings its own challenges, ‘the advantages of co-producing generally far outweigh the downsides.’

 

Citadel’s producer, Katie Holly (Sensation) also felt that the cross-channel collaboration was essential to the viability of Citadel.

 

‘It is an ambitious project and couldn’t have been financed out of what we could raise in Ireland alone. Sigma Films were a natural fit as production partners: they’ve produced many films that I have greatly admired, would be quite similar in ethos to Blinder and Ciarán Foy was already working with them on another project.’

 

The advantages of co-production are that every source of money is doubled up, from the funding bodies, the Irish Film Board and Creative Scotland, to the tax incentive schemes – Section 481 in Ireland and its uk equivalent.

 

‘Of course, the disadvantage is that you are doubling up the administration, but that’s unavoidable. You are getting significantly more money, so that’s good’.

 

Katie Holly’s experience on Citadel was a good one, though a few issues proved problematic, including the euro-sterling exchange rate, and the fact that the uk is not part of the Eurimages production support fund.

 

What advice does Brendan McCarthy have for producers who are interested in co-productions?You need to find someone with a practical relationship that you can talk honestly to. You are going to have to share everything with them, you have to accept that. They won’t deliver for nothing, the deal has to be good for them too.’

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland 136 Spring 2011.

Luke McManus

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Film Ireland 133 Summer 2010: Spotlight on ‘Pyjama Girls’

pyjama-girls-1

pyjama-girls-1

The TV premiere of Pyjama Girls takes place on RTÉ 1 at 10:15pm on Tuesday, 13th March. Ross Whitaker talked to director Maya Derrington shortly before its screening at the 2010 Stranger Than Fiction Festival. This article originally appeared as the spotlight article in Film Ireland summer 2010, issue 133.

 

This year’s Stranger Than Fiction festival had a new slot (moving from June to April) and a new festival programmer in Niall MacPherson. The line-up for the festival was as good as it has ever been, boasting impressive titles like Last Train Home, American: The Bill Hicks Story, Fred Wiseman’s La Danse and Chris Rock’s Good Hair.

 

While the attendance of incoming international filmmakers was greatly restricted by the volcanic ash cloud, Mother Nature had no such impact on audience figures and there were impressive crowds throughout the festival.

 

Over the weekend, long lines regularly snaked through the IFI, proving that there’s very much still an appetite for high quality documentaries. The most popular film of the festival was undoubtedly Pyjama Girls, the thrice sold-out directorial debut of Still Films’ Maya Derrington.

 

Pyjama Girls is a touching, absorbing slice ofDublin life that had the audience transfixed from beginning to end. Running at a tight 70 minutes, the film draws you into the chaotic life ofDublin teenager and habitual pyjama-wearer Lauren.

 

Over the course of the film we learn about the challenges that life throws at Lauren – from her addict mother to the disruptive world of the flats – and understand the crucial importance of her friendship with her more grounded best friend Tara. Balancing tenderness with hilarity, Pyjama Girls tracks the explosive micro-dramas of teenage life against the bleak backdrop ofDublin’s inner city flats.

 

The film has been described as an observational documentary and the strongest scenes are those that capture the tension and love in conversations between Lauren and her immediate family members. One scene in which Lauren has her fingernails painted by her little sister is worth the admission price alone.

 

These observational scenes are interspersed with more stylised interview-based expositional vignettes that retrospectively tell the story of Lauren’s young life. These scenes bring us closer to Lauren and give us insight into her behaviour and temperament.

 

Derrington decided to make the film when she spotted some young girls on the street in pyjamas and was shocked by the sight.

 

‘I was inspired to make the film because of my own surprise and fascination with the daytime pyjama phenomenon. I asked myself why would an item of clothing bring out such shock in me because I’d usually be quite laid-back about clothing. Then I noticed that people all over the city were getting riled by the topic.’

 

‘The vitriol it provokes reminds me of the response to punk. I wanted to explore on screen the intensity of being a female teenager: the everyday dramas and the depths that are hidden behind the clothes and the posturing.’

 

Derrington used the setting of the flats and the pyjamas themselves as visual inspiration when approaching the film.

 

‘There were two things in my mind as I began, one was the bright softness of the pyjamas as a metaphor for female teenage life and against that the harsh lines of the flats. I was really struck by the architecture of the area which combined brutality and community, so I wanted the place to be very present within the film.’

 

The project was funded by the Irish Film Board  under the micro-budget scheme, which completely funds films up to a total budget of 100k. The film was a big undertaking that took up two years of Derrington’s life and the budget was therefore understandably tight.

 

‘We put it forward for funding as a low-budget project because we just wanted to get on with it,’ says producer Nicky Gogan. ‘We had pitched it to a few broadcasters at the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival and although people seemed interested in it, we felt that if we wanted to make the film that Maya imagined we might need funders who were a little more open and flexible to what it might become. We kept it low-key, often it was just Maya and ap Sinead Ni Bhroin that made up the crew, and that suited the observational approach.’

 

‘One of the descriptive terms we used throughout preproduction was ‘micro-dramas’, adds Derrington. ‘We wanted to find the micro-dramas of female teenage lives and I think that term in itself would be enough to terrify a lot of commissioning editors. That along with the term ‘observational, because any observational work creates big challenges for commissioning editors because you can’t guarantee what will happen.’

 

One of the great challenges of making an observational film can be finding an ending and Derrington admits that she had some sleepless nights wondering where the film would end.

 

‘I have to admit that I didn’t think I had an ending. The girls we were following kept joking that they were going to get themselves arrested to give us an ending. It was in the edit that we found the ending. It says something about the open-ended nature of life.’

 

Judging by the response to the film at the Stranger Than Fiction festival, the film has plenty to look forward to in the future.

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Film Ireland 139 Winter 2011: Areaman Productions on the Sony PMW-F3

(still from Areaman Production’s ‘The Fisherman’ taken using an F3 in low light conditions)

The ‘F3’ is the camera we were really hoping Sony would make. As a small production outfit, Areaman has to consider very carefully any potential equipment purchase. We needed to buy into a camera and workflow that would last for at least three years and the arrival of the PMW-F3 has made our decision a comfortable one.

 

The F3, as it’s commonly called, gives us the best of all possible worlds for our current level of production. Broadly speaking, we retain the same post-production workflow from the EX1. We can use the same SXS cards and the same batteries from our original rig along with the same tripod and Steadicam model. This makes the initial buy-in less steep. With the added purchase of an MTF Nikon to the F3 adapter, we can mount our Nikon glass directly onto the front of the F3. This simple fact has proved utterly joyous. Our control of the image is now entirely photographic in the most basic, old-fashioned sense. The frustration of the Letus rig where everything had to be shot in a shallow depth of field by default has disappeared and we can now use the full aperture range of our lenses.

 

From a user’s point of view, the F3 is a very comfortable step up from the EX1 and EX3 cameras – the menu systems are the same, many of the function buttons are in the same place and the LCD is of the same excellent standard. XLR inputs are configured in the same way and there are even extra inputs for unbalanced audio. The body, though, is meatier. The immediate impression is one of heft. If the EX1 is an athlete, the F3 is a bruiser. The body is thick and brick shaped but beautifully balanced. Mounting the F3 on our Steadicam was child’s play and using it handheld, as we have been all this week, is a real treat.

 

The image coming out of the F3, while technically similar to that from the EX1, is streets ahead. You can search online for side-by-side comparisons. The F3 is simply incredible in low light. You can film by candlelight, you can film by streetlight, and you can even film by the light from an iPhone screen. The native capabilities of the Super 35mm CMOS sensor, combined with some fast lenses on the front, means that in a large number of shooting situations lighting becomes optional. The real implications of this are becoming clearer the more we shoot with this camera. The meaning of the term available light is being transformed. We tested the camera extensively on our recent Reality Bites documentary for the Irish Film Board where we filmed almost entirely at dawn or at dusk. Even as our eyes were failing us, the F3 was taking in stunning, murky images with almost no visible noise.

 

As anyone who uses a camera regularly knows, technical specs are always going to run secondary to how the rig feels to use. The F3 feels great. It is not very pretty or curvy and flashy. It’s a big dumb brick of a camera with a powerful chip inside and we are very happy to have one.

 

www.areaman.tv

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland issue 139 Winter 2011.

Eurotek and Sony will host a Masterclass on the Sony PMW-F3 camcorder on Tuesday 6th March 10.30am – 5.00pm at Filmbase.

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Interview with John Boorman

John Boorman

Ronan Doyle caught up with John Boorman at the commemoration marking the 30th anniversary of Excalibur.

I vividly remember seeing the Arthurian epic Excalibur for the first time in 1992. As a Sword and Sorcery obsessed 7-year-old the film emblazoned itself upon my cinematic psyche with images of knights in radiant gore-dappled armour, blood red sunsets, fog shrouded eyries, and verdant forests. John Boorman’s panoply of retina-rotting eye candy set to the brooding strains of Wagner and Orff was intoxicating. Allegorical undertones be damned, I was lost in the sheer spectacle of the proceedings.

Indeed, some three decades after its 1981 release the films oneiric potency has not diminished. Unlike other childhood favourites whose shortcomings are obscured behind a haze of affectionate nostalgia, Excalibur’s virtues are still plain to see. There’s grit beneath its nails; a refusal to shy away from or sanitise the brutal nastiness of medieval combat as characters heave and hew ankle-deep in battlefield sludge yet at the same time it’s a world in which magic and myth abound.

It eschewed traditionalist genre-notions of black and white moral dualism, a healthy shade of grey prevailing instead. We find no paragons of virtue; rather our protagonists possess feet of clay which crumble beneath the weight of noble ideals, succumbing as they do to pride, lust and vanity. In Boorman’s vision legendary figures are brought to life through their human frailties rather than mythic virtues. The balance struck between the grimy and sublime, the earthy and the ethereal is what makes the film so special to this day.

Excalibur defied convention. A Sword and Sorcery movie that wasn’t necessarily for kids; one which revitalised a genre long descended into cliché and ushered in the golden era of 1980’s fantasy cinema. Thirty years on I spoke to director John Boorman about one of his most enduring works.

Can you tell me how you developed the distinctive look of the Excalibur; were there films or materials that served as aesthetic inspiration?

Well what I was trying to do was to evoke what I remembered of the legend as a child, when I first came into contact with the subject – illustrated versions of the tale.

As in those found in children’s storybooks?

Yes, that’s right. Very often when people interpret the legend they take the line that period realism is essential, situating the drama in the pre-Roman era for example. For me what’s important is the myth, not the reality. It’s those fundamental issues of the human condition and heart contained in the myth that have stood the test of time. The myth is much older than the 12th century and yet that’s the period I chose to set Excalibur in simply because it’s what people are most familiar with. You’d don’t want to be too radical when dealing with the subject, you cater to peoples preconceptions and take it from there. I think you have to respect the legend, respect the myth and be humble about it; be true to how people see and remember it.

Excalibur is a fantasy film yet one not necessarily for children. Did you feel you were perhaps taking a risk with a darker, more mature treatment of the legend?

The distributors were very concerned about that at the time. They thought it was too violent and the sexuality too strong for kids. But I had made it plain from the very beginning that this was not going to be a children’s film but rather a very adult one. I set out to tell the story as I saw it.

The contrast between the earthy and the fantastical is striking and seems to be the key ingredient to the film’s success…

They’re both part of it really; you can’t have one without the other. You must respect all aspects of the story. For me what was paramount was how to devise visual metaphors for the internal psychological and spiritual struggles of the characters. For example when Lancelot has that dream in which he’s fighting against himself, awakening wounded upon his own sword or Perceval removing his armour to prevent himself from drowning, the grail searcher needing to strip away everything to become pure. It’s these metaphors that give the film its power. Excalibur is about internal conflicts expressed in very physical terms.

In our CGI age Excalibur’s practical effects lend it a great deal of charm, what challenges were encountered when designing the films special effects sequences?

All the effects were done in camera except for one or two. Camelot itself was a model which we took out on location with us and set at right angles to the camera with a mirror before jiggling it around until we found the right spot in the landscape. For Excalibur coming up out of the lake we rigged the sword underwater with a charge, causing it to shoot upwards. I then shot that scene at 125 frames per second so we could slow it down. The most difficult technical problem really was that it rained every day during the shoot.

The perils of filming outdoors in Ireland…

Yes, we seemed to be constantly waiting for the rain to stop and then had to mop the water off the armour between takes. That was the biggest struggle. Other than that we solved any problems as we went along.

If the opportunity arose would you engage in some retroactive tinkering with the film a la George Lucas, perhaps spruce up some of the matte work, or would you regard a film as sacrosanct once it’s done?

(Laughs) When I complete a film I have no desire to go back to it. I very rarely watch my films once I’ve finished them. I’d much prefer to spend my energy on the next one as opposed to going back to fuss and fret. Of course there’s always things that you’ll regret, things that you could have done better but I think in a way there’s a certain energy contained in a film once it’s been completed. A lot of directors like to do reshoots; something which I’ve never done, for instance building it into the budget for an extra week of shooting so you can go back and correct things. It’s often been said that the first week of shooting should be reshot because it’s always very difficult. I just can’t face that. However when I do re-watch Excalibur I think it has enormous power and this power essentially comes from the myth. I see myself as a servant of the myth, I was there to retell that story, one in a line of those who have reshaped that myth according to their own times.

And perpetuated it in the process. I don’t remember being read storybooks about the legend as a child so in many ways Excalibur was my first introduction to story, a cinematic introduction…

Well here’s the interesting thing! When I was making the film I’d ask people “Do you remember when you first heard about this story?”, and almost nobody can tell you, it’s so much in the culture somehow, so deeply ingrained.

Can you remember when you first heard of the tale?

Well if you look at the opening of Hope and Glory, the little boy, my surrogate, is playing in the garden with a Knight in armour and a Merlin figure. I had those figures when I was a child and distinctly remember reading a comic book version of the legend.

Excalibur showcases the beauty of Ireland and County Wicklow in particular, were there ever any other countries as contenders location-wise?

No. Ireland and the hills and forests of Co. Wicklow in particular possess a certain wildness compared to say England where everything has been rather tamed. It was this wildness, this primal nature that I found so appealing. With the exception of a few scenes filmed in Kerry and Tipperary Excalibur was shot within a mile or two of my house. It was one of those very rare shoots where I made a film sleeping from my own bed. The great thing about Ardmore is that within half an hour of the studio you’ve got sea, lakes, mountains, forests and rivers – a tremendous variety of landscape.

The film was also a great launchpad for Irish acting talent…

I saw Gabriel Byrne on stage performing at the Project Theatre and Liam Neeson playing the role of Lenny in a production of Of Mice and Men – neither had done any film work prior to Excalibur. Ciarán Hinds also made his debut on the picture. What I wanted to do was cast it with young actors who weren’t familiar to audiences.

Now I understand the original cut of Excalibur was turned it at three hours, is there any chance of this version ever being released?

No, I’m not planning to. The original cut of Excalibur was really only bordering the 3 hour mark in the region of 2 hours and 50 minutes. There were two or three scenes that I left out simply because I had to get the film below 2 and a half hours.

Diehard fans would love to know the nature of those scenes…

Well during the sequence before Arthur comes to power there were some additional scenes of knights marauding around the countryside, burning villages and killing people. I wanted to express the confusion and turmoil of a land without a king but they weren’t really essential. Often necessity is the mother of invention and with Excalibur I found the more I paired it down the stronger it became because everything in the film then meant something, there was no flab. What’s important for me when I watch films is that after a few minutes one begins to realise everything in that film is intended by the director – it then assumes great power. This is the quality which the films of Kubrick possess; everything within every frame is important and intended, there’s nothing extraneous and this is what I tried to achieve with Excalibur.

We can rule out a ‘Definitive Edition’ on Blu-Ray then?

Yes, because I think what’s left out is just as important as what’s left in. You make your decisions and you have to stand by them.

With the awarding of the 2003 Best Picture Oscar® to The Return of The King the awards-ceremony glass ceiling was finally broken for the Fantasy Film, why do you think there’s reluctance to recognise the qualities of genre pictures…

Well if you look at the history of the Oscars® they don’t have a very good record really. They tend to go for the serious human dramas and genre films are often neglected and thought of as inferior even though they are usually more successful. It’s just the way it is. I mean it’s only recently that the Oscars® have taken on such importance in people’s minds. For instance in ’72 when I was nominated for Deliverance, I didn’t bother to go.

How’s the Excalibur remake shaping up?

I doubt whether it’s going to materialise because the studios are becoming more and more conservative about what they’re making, I can’t see it happening really. At the end of the day I don’t have copyright on the legend, anyone can make it and good luck to them – I hope they do something interesting.

Now moving away from Excalibur, you’re about to make your first foray into the realm of CGI animation with The Wizard of OZ, what’ can you tell us about the project and how you’ve found working in this new artistic space?

Well I wrote the script, which I enjoyed doing very much, and also storyboarded the whole film but presently there’s no money there to make it. It’s stalled. Overall I didn’t find the process that much different than planning for live action as regards devising scenes and story structure etc. CGI is another weapon in the filmmaker’s arsenal, another device that can help. I’ll tell you what appeals to me very much now is digital. I shot The Tiger’s Tale on the Genesis camera and after that I would never go back to film again; I’ve suffered too much with film over the years with scratches and lab problems, losing scenes and so on. Nowadays you can do a digital grade of your footage, that’s incredibly liberating. When your shooting nights you usually have a cherry picker set up with a big Brute giving you a back light, a sort of simulated moonlight and when you shoot against that light at night there’s endless flares – the hours I’ve spent at night with electricians putting up flags to eliminate these flares, its 3 o’clock in the morning, everyone’s exhausted and just waiting for all this to be done. Now you can just paint those flares out in seconds! It saves an immense amount of time.

You’ve witnessed huge technological upheavals in movie making throughout your career, the most recent being the rebirth of 3D, what do you make of this new trend in cinema?

I don’t like it at all. I think there have been one or two good examples of its use, Avatar did it very well. You know, when making a film we’re constantly trying to give the illusion of 3 dimensions. Film is 2-dimensional; it’s a light on a wall, but through composition and depth of field you give the illusion of 3 dimensions and I think that’s fine. 3D is having the same effect as when sound came in first. When the old film cameras had to be blimped they became very heavy and couldn’t be moved without a lot of effort, films became rather static at that point and shooting on location was difficult due to the need to utilise these big studio cameras. I think the same thing is happening with 3D, when shooting you see something like 12 technicians around the camera trying to figure out things like the point of convergence and any kind of spontaneity is lost.

Thank you John for your time.

A pleasure, thank you.

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