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

John_Howard_Lawson

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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