Issue 128 – Waging Bull

Jamie Hannigan talks to SIPTU/Equity representative Des Courtney and Sean Stokes from Screen Producers Ireland.

wagingbulls

In the days leading up to 7th April 2009 (Black Budget Tuesday) Jamie Hannigan talked to Des Courtney and Sean Stokes to see how unions and independent producers are planning on working through the economic doom and gloom…

Jamie Hannigan: So which of the unions have you been talking to?

Sean Stokes: With SIPTU and with the TEEU (Technical, Engineering & Electrical Union) and with the construction unions. SIPTU would represent probably about 80% of the people, of the grades working on a movie. The TEEU would be the electricians and the construction unions. And then obviously Equity, which is part of SIPTU, who would be the actor’s union.

How long have these negotiations been going 
on for?

SS: It’s been going on for a number of years, in fairness… What we’re looking to secure, obviously, is a small budget production agreement and the terms and conditions and the relevant rates that represent that type of movie-making, in order for it to be made with the significant competition outside of Ireland. So we’re working with the unions, trying to get terms and conditions that will work and allow movies to be made as cost-effectively as possible. We’re well into the process at this stage and we’d hope to be seeing some form of resolution soon.

Is a sliding-scale pay deal for lower to mid-budget films one of the main topics?

SS: Well, obviously small indigenous movie production is the core of the business done in this country, but it’s from the small projects to the big projects that we’re trying – with the unions – to make decisions again. We’re trying to get the programming out again on realistic budgets and getting more made. In 2007, I think in the region of €700 million in tourism came in and that would be related directly to people having seen film and television programmes set in Ireland. So it’s very positive for the economy in lots of ways.

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 128

Share

Issue 128 – Extra, Extra, Read All About It

Adam Lacey explores the extraordinary world of the extra.

extras

In an age where the economy is collapsing around us like a paper house in the rain, some jobs will always be around.

Step forward the extras. Behind every arse on Braveheart, behind every flowing coat and hat combo in Michael Collins, behind every background smock in The Tudors lies the beating, expectant heart of the extra, some waiting patiently for their big break, some just happy to be working in a jovial environment free from the shackles of an office cubicle.

So is it fun? ‘Yes’ seems to be the answer.

Glenn Gannon gushes: ‘Working alongside Derek Jacobi on The Old Curiosity Shop was special. Laws of Attraction with Pierce Brosnan and Julianne Moore was brilliant but head and shoulders above those is my role as Mr Radcliffe in Becoming Jane. Just four of us in a scene together: Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy, Helen McCrory and myself. That only happens when they want a special extra or an up-and-coming actor for a specific scene.’

Nigel Davey finds it tough to pick a favourite role: ‘I guess if I had to choose a favourite job, it would be playing a police constable in the bbc drama George Gently. I was on set every week for the last five months and got to hang out with the main actors, Martin Shaw and Lee Ingleby.’

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 128

Share

Issue 128 – You Won't Be Able To Look Away

Ross Whitaker talks to Brendan Muldowney and Conor Barry about their low-budget feature Savage.

savage1

I don’t mind telling you that I was a little worried when Film Ireland asked me to put the spotlight on Savage, the debut feature film by Brendan Muldowney (director) and Conor Barry (producer).

With low-budget Irish films you just never know what you’re going to get and I hadn’t seen the film yet. In fact, nobody had seen it. Ever. So I was concerned that I was going to end up interviewing the makers of Savage without having enjoyed their film…

They sent me over a screener. I watched it. I loved it. I was the first person to watch the final cut of the film and now the makers of Savage have a 100% record. One viewer, one fan.

Savage is an exploration of violence and masculinity – a story of obsession and revenge, as a man tries to come to terms with a brutal, random attack and its consequences.

Darren Healy plays Paul Graynor, a shy, mild-mannered press photographer who is set upon in an alley by two lads on his way home from a night out. In a hugely powerful scene, Muldowney brilliantly captures the intimidating ‘Look at me! Look at me! Watcha lookin’ at?’ patter that will be all too familiar to anyone who has been caught in that frightening position. It’s an uncomfortable, harrowing scene that will have you squirming in your seat and the gentlemen in the audience crossing their legs. But you won’t be able to look away.

The violent assault leaves Graynor a shadow of his former self, at first cowed but later very, very angry. Muldowney is clearly influenced by films like Taxi Driver and Straw Dogs in depicting a man who is pushed to the edge and contemplates taking the 
next step.

Uncompromising
The film takes you on a visceral, violent journey that is utterly compelling. It’s not for the faint-hearted but then it’s not aimed at the faint-hearted. Indeed, probably the most pleasing element of this film is its unflinching desire to not let the audience off the hook. It is uncompromising but all the better for that. It puts the audience in an uncomfortable but fascinating place, leaving you wondering whether revenge could be acceptable if the initial crime is heinous enough.

‘I wanted to make people feel something and then they could make up their own minds about it,’ says Muldowney. ‘I wanted the audience to understand this character and to almost feel sorry for him despite the violent acts that he carries out. It’s a bit twisted. The whole point was to put the audience in this grey area, so they could see both sides of the story. I was happy to not be didactic.’

While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact budget of Savage, it seems to me that they received less cash in hand than is often wasted on an hour of prime-time reality TV. They had just four weeks to shoot the film and ended up with less coverage than they would have liked, though I must admit that I didn’t notice. Barry and Muldowney are also quick to point out that their low budget brought benefits as well as drawbacks.

‘If we’d had more money, I probably would have used CGI to help me depict the violence and bloodshed in certain scenes but in hindsight it became more about performance and using the length of the scene to get me there. I think it works just as well and that it’s just as disturbing and if we’d been more explicit it might not have been as good,’ says Muldowney. Barry adds a crucial point, ‘the other thing about low-budget filmmaking is that it gave us the freedom to make the film we wanted to make.’

Barry and Muldowney originally aimed to make Savage as part of the Catalyst Project – BSÉ/IFB, BCI, TVt3 and Arts Council scheme that aimed to get three low-budget features made – but when it wasn’t picked as one of the final projects, they decided to make it anyway.

Natural progression
‘We didn’t get Catalyst but we had put so much work into it at that point, it reinforced the fact that we really wanted to make it,’ explains Barry. ‘Funnily enough, all of the work you put into trying to get a Catalyst application together, all of the encouragement and meetings and so on bring you on the road towards making your film. It all became a weird, natural progression towards achieving funding for Savage.’

They make no secret of their gratitude to BSÉ/IFB, who strongly backed the project, ‘they put together the model that allowed us to get the film made,’ says Barry. And they commend Filmbase, which was also very supportive. In addition, the team raised money outside of the normal channels by sending an investment proposal to family, friends and, well, everyone they could. It worked.

It’s quite remarkable what they’ve achieved with the budget they accumulated and there are films out there with ten times the budget that don’t look half as good. Using the RED ONE, cinematographers Michael O’Donovan and Tom Comerford have created a stark, monochrome Dublin that is gritty without appearing in any way cheap. Muldowney is clearly adept at using sound and it is employed to great effect throughout the film and, in particular, to build the internal journey of Graynor.

It’s a tribute to the BSÉ/IFB ‘can do’ attitude that so many small, high-quality films are making their way to audiences. But the flipside is that there is increasing competition for berths at festivals even within Ireland. The makers of Savage hope to debut the film at Galway and take it from there.

Beyond Savage, Barry and Muldowney have two more films loaded up and ready to go and they’re just waiting to finalise funding before pulling the trigger. I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing what they do next.

Share

Issue 128 – Pets on Sets

Michael Freeman on the last great untapped income source.

Pets on sets

These are the end times. There’s no money in the bank. Regular employment is a distant, sepia-tinged memory. Your residence – the converted d6 hot-press that seemed such a prudent investment in the heady days of 2007 – is now worth a fraction of its cost. In fact, really the only tangible asset that you haven’t yet bartered away for food is Tarkovsky, your loyal collie.

Well, you might be in luck. Film productions need animals like brutal military juntas need epaulettes, and Irish films are no exception. From the weediest student shorts to the most inscrutable arthouse meisterwerks, directors are willing to pay good money for the privilege of having a non-human adorn their scenes. And here’s the kicker: that creature could be the very one currently masticating your smart shoes.

The last two decades’ influx of Hollywood productions, which arrived thanks to the very tax regime that is currently casting us into recession, brought serious pay packets to Ireland’s domestic beasts for the first time. Movies like Braveheart, Michael Collins, Lassie (of course) and even the woefully misguided Cruise/Kidman vehicle Far and Away all required a sizeable cast of animal actors. Beneath those starry heights, there’s also the day-to-day business of soap operas, commercials, and RTÉ dramas about rich young things – all awaiting your animal’s contribution. Here we present Film Ireland’s guide to getting pets into the movies.

Scoop’n’shoot
The first thing you need to do is sign your precious pooch (or whatever) up with the animal equivalent of a casting agency. Tommy Bolton is the owner-operator of moviepets.ie, which works in much the same way as movieextras.ie. ‘What we do is, when people sign up to my company, I take them on the books’, he says. ‘And then the animal’s photo is up on my gallery. So if a prospective casting director browses my site and says “I need that fluffy dog”, I’ll contact the owner to see are they available.’ Then you simply scoop your unsuspecting pet into an airholed box and take them along to the shoot.

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 128

Share

Issue 124 – Filmmaking? Are You Serious?

Alan Parker
Alan Parker

Alan Parker’s handy tips on a career in film.

Frankly, filmmaking is not such a great profession these days, so be really sure you want to do it. It’s tough. For every Once there’s a thousand films no one ever saw (except for the filmmakers’ closest relatives). Last year at the Sundance Festival – the Lourdes of independent film – they had five thousand entries. Of the twenty that were picked up by distributors, only five got their money back at the box office.

Listen to no one
As the veteran screenwriter William Goldman famously said about the movie business, ‘Nobody knows anything.’ If you’re a director you should always be truthful to yourself, to what you are trying to say and how you choose to say it. Frankly, directing is a crash course in megalomania. But always remember that a film doesn’t exist in a film can or on a DVD. It only exists when it flickers on a screen and an audience experiences it. So don’t ignore the tastes, emotions and expectations of all those people sitting there in the dark.

Listen to everyone
Filmmaking is a collaborative art form. No filmmaker in history ever made a film on his or her own. Film crews are your best friends and the true heroes of the film business. Let’s face it, even Leonardo needed a little help painting The Last Supper; Fellini needed a hundred people to help him shoot La dolce vita.

Filmmaking is rarely glamorous. Being ankle-deep in pig shit every day is the reality OK, sometimes you get to meet Andrea Corr.

It’s just as hard to make a bad film as a good one
The moment you start a film, you take a deep breath and leap off into a big black hole of uncertainty and doubt. A film director has to have the sensitivity of a poet and the stamina of a construction worker. The trouble is that rather too many of us get it the wrong way around.

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 124.

Share

Issue 115 – The Lads and Lasses from Ould Ireland

Lads and Lasses
Lads and Lasses

The birth of cinema coincided with the period of greatest immigration into the US. Movies were made for and by the new Americans. The Irish poured into the eastern seaboard cities of the US in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth. Many became enthusiastic customers for the filmic novelties offered in the arcades and nickelodeons springing up on every downtown street corner. What sort of films were they watching? What sort of representations of the Irish were present in early silent cinema? What role did the Irish play in forging early cinema? To what extent was early cinema coloured by the diasporic imagination?

A number of film researchers, like myself, are now looking into this forgotten aspect of film history. My interest in this topic initially resulted from my involvement in the documentary film The Hard Road to Klondike, completed in 1999 for RTÉ and TG4, and later invited to the Venice Film Festival. We used a range of early film archive to tell the story of Donegal emigrant, Micí Mac Giobhann’s journey through the US to the Alaskan Gold Rush. With researchers Declan Smith and Bonny Rowan I unearthed a fascinating range of early film material locked in the vaults of the Library of Congress, a small sample of which we reworked for our film. The Klondike project gave us the opportunity to share with an Irish television audience some of the earliest films.

I imagined hat the first thing a newly arrived Irish emigrant like Micí Mac Giobhann might have done, after clearing the immigration controls on Ellis Island, would have been to make their way to Broadway and to the Mutoscope (peep show) arcades located there. For five cents anyone could experience the magic of motion pictures. You can imagine the sense of wonder the immigrants would have had as they glimpsed panoramas of the city in which they had just arrived, the wild west about which they could only dream and professional boxing matches (where Irish pugilists were well represented). The Irish arrivals would also have seen far from flattering portraits of themselves in films like the The Finish of Briget McKeen (1901) and actualities of the Irish American community like St.Patrick’s Day Parade in Lowell, Mass. (1905).

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 115.

Share

Issue 115 – Low-Budget Dystopia

Low Budget Dysptopia
Low Budget Dysptopia

In The Matrix, the real world has been destroyed and human beings are used as an energy source by artificial lifeforms, the horror of their true existence being hidden by means of an elaborate, computer-generated simulacrum. Similarly, has the ‘real world’ of Irish filmmaking been destroyed and replaced, almost unnoticed, by a low-budget mock-up of the real thing? This article will deal with the corrupting influence of low-budget filmmaking: its removal of filmmaking as a sustainable career for adults; its exploitative nature; its undermining of the art and craft of cinema as a whole; its lack of understanding of technology; and the shameful absence of leadership in tackling what is obstructing an otherwise viable, worthwhile industry in this country.

The ‘low-budget’ paradigm has an iron grip here today, aided and abetted by a compliant media and arts establishment. It has now reached the stage where no other form of filmmaking is tolerated. Low-budget filmmaking is continually advocated and supported in the discourse about indigenous film, not only in the pages of this magazine, but in the wider media. It is now institutionalised, and it represents a real threat to genuine Irish filmmaking.

It is de rigueur to lavish praise on ‘heroic’ directors and producers for ‘achieving miracles with limited resources’, for ‘surviving on a tight budget’, for ‘overcoming financial obstacles’, and so on. But the true nature and impact of low-budget filmmaking – not only on filmmakers, actors and craftspersons, but on cinema itself – has never been discussed. Such an analysis is now long overdue.

The first conceit of low-budget filmmaking is that it foregrounds the cost of production in its very phraseology. But why? Why should filmmaking be reduced to a soulless accounting exercise? Why talk about a film only in terms of its cost – or more accurately how little it has cost? How is this relevant to the task in hand? Do we look at an old master in a gallery and marvel at how little or how much it cost to paint the picture? Do we wonder at how much it costs to put on a concert? Do we speculate as to the outlay involved in creating a piece of sculpture? Of course not. We don’t engage in this philistine behaviour in these circumstances, so why do we so readily accept it in filmmaking?

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 115.

Share

Issue 115 – Once: From the Heart

Once
Once

Grafton Street. Night. In a long shot from across the street we see a busker strumming a guitar in a gap between shops. The angle is reminiscent of a tourist video – a casual passer-by who happens upon this interesting musical specimen and chooses to pause for a moment. At this hour of the day the singer is without an audience, and seems to be performing largely for his own benefit in the darkened thoroughfare. As his song progresses he becomes more passionate, his fingers assaulting his guitar while his voice is pushed to its limits. As he reaches the song’s zenith the camera moves across the street, catching him in a mid-to-close shot that transforms the accidental style into something more akin to a rock video. As he finishes we become aware that he has an audience: one person: a young woman.

The woman asks him why she has never heard this song before; he tells her that he has written it himself. He only plays his original songs at night, he explains, because during the day people want to hear something familiar. After all, this is how he makes his living. While he’s happy that people like her appreciate his music, people like her can only afford to throw ten cent into his guitar case.

Scenes from modern Bohemia
The first meeting between the two nameless protagonists in John Carney’s Once recalls the initial encounter between Rodolfo and Mimì in La Bohème. The main characters in Puccini’s opera are an impoverished young poet and a consumptive seamstress who inhabit a realm of beauty that lies beyond their immediate, penurious circumstances. Rodolfo explains his trade in the famous lines: ‘Who am I? I’m a poet/My business? Writing/How do I live? I live.’ While the denizens of Carney’s modern bohemia are musicians, rather than the assorted artists of the Latin Quarter, Once operates within a similar tradition. The busker eeks out a living between playing music on the streets and working in his father’s hoover repair shop, while his female companion sells flowers on the street and works as a domestic cleaner. But both have talents that only the other seems to appreciate.

If Bohemian Paris was a reaction to the years of bourgeois affluence culminating in the Second Empire, the Bohemian circle explored by Once represents a cultural byproduct of Ireland’s boom years in the 1990s. Ireland’s Celtic Tiger years have been documented, temporarily at least, by a corpus of romcoms and thrillers. Once depicts the other side of the boom; there is no cosmopolitan glitz, but neither is there probing of a (by now well-prodded) ‘dark underbelly’. In a property-obsessed society, both protagonists live in unglamorous circumstances with one of their parents. No-one in the film (apart from Eamon the record producer) uses a mobile phone or drives a car; no-one drinks a cappuccino, eats parma ham or rockett, uses an iPod or goes online. There is a single scene in which Glen Hansard uses a laptop while writing a new song, but otherwise the trappings of the new disposable income that we are all supposed to be enjoying are noticeable by their absence. Characters travel by bus and use public phones as if the Celtic Tiger never happened.

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 115.

Share

Issue 115 – Killing Time in Dublin

Tom Fontana
Tom Fontana (photo by Nerea Aymerich)

It’s Friday afternoon in The Clarence and Tom Fontana is talking murder again. A guest of the Irish Playwrights’ and Screenwriters’ Guild, the former Homicide: Life on the Street and Oz scribe has just spoken to a select audience on the pratfalls of network television for the guts of 90 minutes. Most would appreciate a break, all he wants is a drink. Cut to the bar and he’s sipping on Kentucky bourbon and getting into the specifics of the shows that have haunted the imagination of many’s the viewer. Oft spoken about in hushed tones, Oz remains the hardest show in television; pushing envelopes more suited to grindhouse cinema than prison opera, it boasts a cast of perverts, sociopaths and bungling ideologues. On the other side of the thin blue line, his other collaboration with Barry Levinson, Homicide: Life on the Street, proved cop shows could be smart, funny and taut without relying on car chases or gunplay. He also likes YouTube… in principle.

Niall: One of the things that set Homicide apart as a cop show was its obsession with the macabre. To what extent was this a deliberate move on your part?

Tom: As a writer I face a blank piece of paper every day; that’s a beast I have to wrestle. A homicide detective has to face a dead body. You have to wonder, over the course of time, how does that corrupt – spiritually, morally, emotionally – a human being whose job it is face death and often brutally disfigured bodies every day. A lot of the work I do is descended from Poe, because no one has managed to conjure up the macabre better. Also the fact that Poe is buried in Baltimore was a big part of that. I find those kind of ghosts to be very compelling. If you’re going to write about a city you need to know as much about the ghosts of that place as the living.

Was Baltimore a place you were interested in before doing Homicide?

I was brought there kicking and screaming from New York, but I fell in love with the place and we did everything we could to make the city a character in the show. We wrote the show uniquely to Baltimore, but the things that are specific to there have comparable details in every city anywhere in the world. In Baltimore you get crab cakes, in Buffalo you get chicken wings – it’s the same thing. By being specific to Baltimore we were able to say it’s just a town like any other.

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 115.

Share

Issue 115 – Danger is my Business

Danger is my Business
Danger is my Business

From fields on fire in Braveheart to bare-knuckle boxing in Becoming Jane, Donal O’Farrell is a stunt co-ordinator who has spent nearly thirty years in the business. He talks to Adam Lacey about the set-ups and knock-downs of the stunt world.

The idea of stuntwork in Irish films hardly conjures up images of the Terminator powering through Los Angeles Police Department roadblocks on a gargantuan Harley Davidson, mercilessly mowing down anything that gets in his way with a ridiculously oversized automatic weapon. But Donal O’Farrell, stunt co-ordinator on upcoming release Becoming Jane and a film industry veteran of nearly thirty years, makes a compelling case for the value of stunt workers in the film business of any country, no matter what the genre or budget.

Prior to meeting Donal I must admit that I am expecting some kind of steroid-abusing, adrenaline junkie, possibly on fire from head to toe, and certainly arriving by parachute or Humvee. When we do eventually meet, at the IFI in Dublin’s city centre, he is, thankfully, a non-threatening gent of average height, well built and younger than I expected, without so much as a hint of suddenly bursting into flames or challenging me to a castle-top sword-fight. As he later tells me, ‘People have preconceived notions of stunt workers – big, muscled, blonde, American – but my height and size are average. It means you can double for smaller and larger people.’ He emphasises this by informing me that he has doubled for both a doddery, elderly woman in RTÉ ’s Pure Mule, and also for Southern Fried good ol’ boy Matthew McConaughey in dragon-themed flop Reign of Fire.

His most recent work, however, is period drama Becoming Jane in which, he tells me, Anne Hathaway ‘absolutely nails’ the English accent. He adds that the busy starlet has been a huge Jane Austen fan for many years and was more than familiar with the literature before the starring role was offered to her.
One may wonder what sort of stunts would be involved in such a production, and without wanting to give too much away (he never reads or listens to any reviews due to their propensity for plot spoilage) Donal concedes that his involvement was concerned with a controversial form of pugilism. ‘There’s two fight sequences, both of them involving James McAvoy and it’s bare knuckle boxing. James is obviously not a bare knuckle fighter but he’s done so many stunts in training and he gets involved in some fighting in the film. It was great to do bare knuckle fighting and James was fantastic to work with on it.’

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 115.

Share

Issue 115 – Trouble Every Day

Anton
Anton

Everyday is a battle,’ says director Graham Cantwell. He is midway through shooting his first feature, Anton, with very little money and a great deal of determination. Aidan Beatty visited the set, and tried to delay proceedings as little as possible.

An odd sight greeted those who happened to be making their way through Smithfield on a recent cold and wet January morning: a small, nondescript pub had been converted into a mid-1970s Parisian café-bar. This transformation took place to aid the production of Graham Cantwell’s debut feature, Anton. Ostensibly the film is the story of a merchant sailor’s return to an Ireland caught up in the midst of the Troubles, though, for scriptwriter and lead actor Anthony Fox, this film is definitely ‘not just another IRA movie – it’s a family story, a rock-and-roll love story.’

Graham Cantwell is well known in the Irish film industry due to the positive reception his short films, such as A Dublin Story, have received. Making a complete nuisance of myself on this frantically busy set, I shangai Graham and his producer Patrick Clarke for an interview, taking them away from obviously more important work. I begin by asking them about a seemingly incongruous aspect of this production: it’s a low-budget period drama; surely that’s a contradiction in terms… Graham doesn’t quite agree: ‘It is a kind of a contradiction, but basically what we’re doing is getting a bunch of incredibly talented people who are very dedicated, and pulling out all the stops. Most of the time it really is a case of necessity being the mother of invention. They have to be very clever to be able to do what they do.’ Patrick goes further by informing me ‘Most people would define low-budget by the amount of money they have to shoot a film. That’s true in most cases, but here we’re shooting a Hollywood-type film with no money because people have been working for a reduced rate of pay. We’ve being getting a lot of help with locations, even just staying in people’s houses in Cavan. So we’ve been able to minimize costs. A lot of people aren’t getting paid anything because they’ve taken points at the end of the film, so if the film does well they’ll get paid. Everybody in the film is taking a risk.’

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 115.

Share

Issue 115 – Listening to Lynch

Listening to Lynch
Listening to Lynch

From the ‘fast’ Mulholand Dr. and Wild at Heart to the ‘slow’ Eraserhead and The Elephant Man, Tony McKibbin examines the work of David Lynch, with a particular emphasis on sound.

Here are a couple of moments from David Lynch’s work. The first comes from Lost Highway: the credits come towards us on the screen, we’re in a car hurtling along a road at night, while an intense rock song plays on the soundtrack. The second is the opening scene from Blue Velvet, where Bobby Vinton’s dulcet tones accompany Lynch’s slow motion take on small town American life. Vinton sings ‘Blue Velvet’, and Lynch captures a slumberous Lumberton. Using a Lynchian vocabulary, we can suggest the first scene utilises ‘fast sound’; the latter ‘slow sound’. In fast sound our nerves are often stretched and in slow sound ostensibly assuaged, or at least temporarily relieved from dramatic exigencies and nerve pounding. But, just as Lynch says, ‘The borderline between sound effects and music is the most beautiful area’; we can add that another beautiful area in Lynch’s work resides in the complex way he works with fast and slow sound.

Many filmmakers, of course, work with fast and slow sonic effects, but they often do so far more regimentally than Lynch. Horror is a great genre of fast and slow sounds played against each other for the purposes of audience impact. In the original Cat People, for example, we hear the quiet street sounds of the central character’s heels on the pavement only to have the slow soundscape suddenly interrupted by the loud, fast screech of a bus pulling up. Then there is, of course, Jaws, where the calm of the sea is set against the sharp, strident chords of John Williams’s shark-track. In a less conventional fashion there is a film like Funny Games, which utilises a thrash metal soundtrack during the opening credits, contrasted with snatches of classical and opera, before settling down to domestic slow sounds, made ominous partly because of the fast sound the film briefly utilises.

Lost Highway shares with Funny Games this use of metal, but it uses it more ambiguously. Haneke seems to fall into the high/low art dichotomy as he contrasts metal with opera, but for Lynch it is just another element in the complexity of sound. This isn’t sound that needs sociological contrasting with the civilized sound of opera and classical music. It is instead an especially intriguing example of fast sound that succeeds in capturing an internal rawness over an external chaos. Lynch seems interested in an experimental, tentative exploration of sound’s inner workings over socio-categories of a collapsing society, symbolized by the insensitive sounds of modern living: of which metal might seem to be the nadir.

Thus metal doesn’t serve to symbolize social decay in Lynch, but to energize certain cinematic images, and certain mental states. For example, it can help the body of a film and the mind of its protagonists fly. As Lynch himself says, ‘A film is like a pyramid. In the beginning you can go slowly and, as you go along and it may seem the same amount of slowness, but in actuality it’s much faster, just because you seem to be going for some time… Film is flying.’

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 115.

Share

Issue 115 – Jump-starting Low-Budget

Catalystproject
Catalystproject

Catalystproject is a new mentored scheme for producing low-budget feature films and training creative teams in how to make them. Lir Mac Cárthaigh introduces it .

Ireland has a long tradition of making feature films for little or no money, and many of the results have been more satisfying than the bigger-budget indigenous films. But those embarking on making a first independent feature can find it involves a punishingly steep learning curve. After many years of gestation, a collection of Ireland’s best and brightest in the area of moving images are ready to announce a new project that aims to make those first steps a little easier.

Catalystproject is a mentoring scheme devised by Bord Scannán na hÉireann/the Irish Film Board, FÁS Screen Training Ireland, Filmbase, the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, TV3, and the Arts Council, that will culminate in the total financing of three low-budget (€250,000) feature films. The scheme is open to prospective screenwriters, producers and directors who have some experience in making short films, television drama, music videos, or television commercials. What sets the scheme apart from a mere funding opportunity is firstly the series of seminars conducted by experienced low-budget filmmakers and industry professionals, which will help stimulate the creativity of the participants and help them realise their vision in a practical way. Secondly, mentoring of each team by industry practitioners during the productions themselves gives the programmme a value far beyond simply financing the films.

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 115.

Share

Issue 114 – Old Friends, New Paths

Old Joy
Old Joy

The critically-acclaimed Old Joy sees two old friends go in search of themselves on a camping trip. Carol Murphy talked to director Kelly Reichardt and actor Daniel London at the London Film Festival.

Kurt (Will Oldham) and Mark (Daniel London) are old friends who reunite for a weekend camping trip. With them they carry the baggage of their fading friendship and also the lives that they have built for themselves and the subsequent values that they have acquired. Kurt is a childlike drifter, aimless, without commitments, whilst Mark is married with fatherhood close at hand.

Kurt takes Mark on a journey to a pastoral idyll, to a remote natural hot spring in the Cascade Mountain Range in Portland. The trip marks an attempt for them to engage with the idealism of their past friendship. What they discover, however, is an inability to find personal or political meaning or contingency through this idealism of how they once lived their lives.

Writer/director Kelly Reichardt used the short stories of John Raymond, the context of today’s Bush administration in the US and the photography of Peter Sillen as a structure on which to stencil the alienation and lack of hope surrounding the central characters – two inept liberals.

Carol: What was the germination for this project and what were your intentions for the film?

Kelly Reichardt: Well, I had read John Raymond’s book called The Half Life when I was driving on a cross country trip with my dog, who’s in the movie. I was thinking a lot about the friendships that are in that book, and I contacted John to ask if he had any short stories that I could read with similar elements regarding the friendships. So he sent me Old Joy. I worked on the script for a long time, and then the story was published with Justine Kurland’s photographs in a book called Old Joy, which was a very beautiful photography book. That’s sort of where it started.

What were the elements about the relationship between the two central characters in the book that interested you?

Kelly: John has a way of writing about friendship that has a lot space in it, and it hums around an idea. When you read it, it leaves you chewing on it for a while and it gives you a lot of room to bring your own experience to it. My filmmaking is open like this as well. So that was what really appealed to me, and the characters seemed like people that I related to. I was interested in making a film about this exact moment in time and the sort of disillusionment of people my age – the characters are actually a little younger than me – about what it is to live in America and the feeling of loss of hope and the death of liberalism and all those things which are very hard for a character like Kurt, I think. That’s what drew me to it.

The sort of space that Kelly is discussing, is that what attracted you to the script and the project as an actor?

Daniel London: Well, first of all I think that it is rare to look at a non-romantic relationship in a film, like a friendship, in that way. I felt that what Kelly and John were getting at was a very elusive quality that I think is rare in film, or in any art, where a friendship begins to go bad, and trying to find the remnants of what was there. That was really appealing to me but, in terms of the space, I feel like this whole project was more like acting in a play than in a film, just because of that space that Kelly allowed, which was to do with the nature of the project and the way she worked. As an actor I felt like I had a lot of room within a scene to figure out what it was all about, and that was a liberating thing.

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 114.

Share

Issue 114 – The 'Krasznahorkai Trilogy' of Béla Tarr

Béla Tarr
Béla Tarr

To celebrate the release of his epic Sátántangó on DVD, David O Mahony places the film in the context of the Hungarian director’s other collaborations with novelist László Krasznahorkai, and finds that, despite Tarr’s assertions to the contrary, the films are about much more than depressing characters walking around in the rain.

In an interview following a London Film Festival screening of his most recent film, Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), Hungarian director Béla Tarr fielded an inquiry from critic Jonathan Romney by stating that ‘there are no symbols or metaphors in my movies, lets get that straight from the beginning’. And as to the possibility of political allusions, ‘politics is a dirty business and should never be the object of a piece of art’. Tarr’s work is, from a western perspective at least, elusive, and Romney was, with some justification, goading the director into disgorging himself of some salient nugget of information that might knit the disparate elements of Werckmeister into a cohesive whole. It proved a fool’s errand; Tarr – intransigent, implacable, and not a little threatening – mitigated any possibility of his art being dissected for the benefit of a hungry audience.

What effect has this denial of meaning on the films themselves? By removing the burden of interpretation from the viewer Tarr is not really helping, as his films (which could at the very least be described as challenging) cry out to be ‘read’ in some manner. It is a cheeky side-stepping manoeuvre from an artist loath to reveal his motives. Perhaps, also, it is the viewer’s weakness; hopelessly tied to conventional forms of cinematic expression where things mean ‘things’, we feel compelled to ascribe a rationale, however spurious. But how does one digest the seven-and-a-quarter-hour Sátántangó (1994) without recourse to some frame of external reference? I prefer to believe that Tarr is being playful when he says there is no coding, no hidden meaning. Time and again he has dismissed anything save the most rudimentary reading his work seeks to capture the quotidian life of downtrodden folk in rural Hungary, nothing more and by doing so forces us to engage with the work on a fundamental level; he is doing what so few directors do these days, which is asking us to interpret the images, forcing us to make judgments about what is happening (or, for that matter, not happening) onscreen. By effectively divorcing himself from artistic responsibility the director single-handedly makes his films all the more interesting.

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 114.

Share

Original Sim

original_sim2
Alastair Sim

Mark Venner pays tribute to the eccentric genius of Alastair Sim, a true original of British comedy who defies the remake treatment.

The great Scottish actor Alastair Sim was without doubt the eccentric genius of post-war British cinema, spicing British film comedy with a peerless gallery of Dickensian rogues and scallywags. Sim is perhaps most widely remembered for his portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge in Brian Desmond Hurst’s Scrooge (1951). His performance eschews the cosy Yuletide nostalgia of all other screen incarnations of Dickens’ curmudgeon in favour of an unnerving Gothic intensity that has more in common with the horror film than a jolly seasonal favourite.

Sinister inclinations
Sim’s film career spanned almost 50 years, beginning with George Formby comedies in the mid-1930s and appearances with the Crazy Gang in Alf’s Button Afloat (1938). He first became inclined towards the sinister in the Edgar Wallace chiller The Terror (1938), but it was during the war years that he began to gain recognition with his portrayal of Sergeant Bingham in the Inspector Hornleigh films. This three-part series paved the way for his classic portrayal of the eccentric and irreverent Inspector Cockrill in Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat’s Green For Danger (1947). Set in a small ‘cottage hospital’ in rural Kent, under the direct flight path of Nazi Germany’s dreaded doodlebug flying bombs, this strange murder mystery portrays a close-knit community of surgeons and nurses torn apart by emotional turmoil, sexual jealousy and the horrors of war. Sim’s detective, brought in to investigate a baffling murder, is the first of his truly eccentric characterisations – an unsettling and ambiguous authority figure with sinister hooded eyes and a nervous grin. This was the persona he was to embody for the remainder of his career in British cinema; he became the paradigm of ambiguity that embodied the post-war decline of the middle-class hegemony quite brilliantly.

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 114.

Share

Issue 114 – Rogue Spirit: John Huston 100 Years On

Huston
Huston

To coincide with a major restrospective of his work at the Irish Film Institute, Michael Open delves into the rogues gallery that makes up the fluent, complex and expressive cinema of John Huston.

With his immense height and his gaunt face occasionally illuminated by an enormous grin, John Huston, with his avuncular good humour, was among the most recognisable of American directors. The promised arrival of a major season of his work at the IFI to celebrate the centenary of his birth is a mouth-watering event. This article, which focuses on several of the films that, as we go to press, seem likely to be shown in the season, is our attempt to help readers get the most from it.

Man of the West
Huston, of course, had a close association with Ireland, assuming Irish citizenship in 1964 and living for much of the latter half of his life near Galway, where the National University now locates the Huston School of Film and Digital Media. For myself, I had the great pleasure to talk over the phone to Huston in October, 1984. The context was that Under the Volcano – a wonderful and desperately undervalued work – was about to be shown in the Belfast Festival, and I had discovered that one of Huston’s grandchildren was working in Belfast. After a few phone calls to California, Huston agreed to tape an introduction to the film, and the audience had the privilege of listening to his brief thoughts on the film (he insisted on calling the consul a ‘counsel’) before announcing in his rasping, emphysemic voice that he was working on ‘just one more film’.

Huston’s life spanned, essentially, the middle eight decades of the twentieth century. When Huston was born in 1906 [1], his father, Walter, was already an established actor, and Huston fils found himself on the stage at the age of three. However, his parents’ marriage didn’t last and, by the time of the First World War, he was spending half his time with his father on the vaudeville circuit and the other half with his mother, a journalist with a passion for horse racing. After some amateur boxing, he took to the stage, and, at 19 he landed a leading part in a Broadway play and the first of five marriages.

But both acting and the marriage failed to fire his imagination and he took off for Mexico, where he enlisted as an officer in the cavalry. While in Mexico, he started his creative work writing a play (Frankie and Johnny) which, on resigning his commission, he brought back to America and had performed (by puppets!) in 1929.

Meanwhile, Huston père had been working with William Wyler, who asked John to appear in a couple of short films. But this minor work didn’t challenge Huston, who turned his attention to writing – this time short stories and journalism. Using his father’s contacts, he got a few minor jobs in Hollywood, but distant shores beckoned and, ostensibly in pursuit of a job at Gaumont British, he set sail for Europe. The job, however, was illusory and he led a poverty-stricken life in London and Paris where he studied oil painting for a while, sketching tourists for food money.

This chequered lifestyle continued until he decided to return to Hollywood and take up writing seriously. Employed by Warner Brothers, this, following co-writing credits for a couple of Oscar-nominated scripts (Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet and Sergeant York), finally led to his being able to direct his script for Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, a film that established him as a key creative talent in Hollywood for the rest of his career. After war service, he continued his association with Humphrey Bogart, and made The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which won him two Oscars Best Director and Best Screenplay. This was followed by Key Largo, The African Queen and Beat the Devil. In between times, he had made one of the finest post-war films noir in The Asphalt Jungle, starring Sterling Hayden.

1. Biographical information from Katz’ International Film Encyclopaedia.

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 114.

Share

Issue 114 – The Rise and Rise of the Irish Short

An Gaeilgeoir Nocht
An Gaeilgeoir Nocht

Rebecca Kemp takes a look at the Irish language’s most prolific calling card.

The short form has experienced a renaissance of late, with festivals giving it greater attention and the press more column inches. This is due in no small way to the increased accessibility of the genre, cheaper and easier to use equipment, wider exhibition opportunities presented by the internet, and the ability to download onto portable devices. As a champion of the low budget and experimental, the Irish film industry is producing more films in this form than ever before. An Irish short even won an Oscar in 2006, Martin McDonagh’s Six Shooter.

Cheap and quick
With the short form appealing to most filmmakers’ modest budgets and audiences’ ever decreasing attention span, making shorts in the Irish language has never been more popular. One could go so far as to say that the Irish-language short has eclipsed its feature equivalent in gaining international recognition and in becoming the primary medium in which Irish-language films are currently being made. Shorts are responsible for pushing the genre further in terms of subject matter and production, and have become an important platform on which to expose the Irish language to a non-Gaelic speaking audience.

Does this mark a new dawn for Irish filmmakers, or is it still a case of filling out a form and making a film that fulfils funding criteria? Do critics have a point that many films are made that have no basis in the Irish language, but are simply script translations done to qualify for funding? Others may rightly complain that many films are made by people who don’t understand Irish and disregard the nuances of regional dialects and colloquialisms.

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 114.

Share

Issue 114 – The Uses of Enchantment

Taiwanese Cinema
Taiwanese Cinema

The homeland of Hou Hsiao-hsien is looking at new ways to enchant cineplex audiences, and turn them from Hollywood fare to local film. John Orr reports on the current state of Taiwanese cinema, and profiles some of the new talent on display at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival.

The Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival is always a showcase for new Asian film, but recently has confirmed a new direction for Taiwanese cinema – exploring the textures of contemporary life with a sense of enchantment. This goes beyond thought-provoking documentary – an attraction everywhere for low-budget projects in the digital age – and gives us a new aesthetic in which the camera is critically observant but highly self-conscious, and often blurs the boundaries of fiction and reality. This does not mean a reaction against the arthouse films of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang by which Taiwanese cinema has been defined for so many years. Rather it takes their artistic advance into a documentary idiom all the while enhancing their trademarks – location shooting, rejection of Hollywood studio practices, honing the camera as an observing instrument, and using non-professionals in key roles.

Taiwanese Godfather
Without doubt, Hou remains the Godfather of Taiwanese cinema, encouraging young filmmakers through his film school and preserving an executive role to oversee new projects through his company 3H Productions. One of the festival events this year was the FIFA award to Hou (following those to Scorsese, Oliveira and Bergman) for his devotion to film preservation in Taiwan: partly with his prompting, the government has now made a decision to invest in a massive film restoration archive for the island. And in the new Taiwanese features he was also here by proxy. While away in Paris filming Orsay, a quartet project with Olivier Assayas, Raúl Ruiz and Jim Jarmusch, two of his ex-assistant directors were putting finishing touches to their features for this year’s festival. En Chen’s Island Étudeand Hung-i Yao’s Reflections show Hou’s legacy in different ways, yet have a life and look very much of their own.

Hou’s dilemma now is easily put. Earlier classics like City of Sadness and A Time to Live and a Time to Die are still admired; they had signalled for many Taiwanese the role and dramas of ordinary people in the tragic birth of a nation that escaped its Japanese colonists in 1945 only to find itself subject to the bloody Kuomintang dictatorship forged by Chiang Kai-shek and his mainland exiles. Yet while Hou’s global reputation has soared, the mood in Taiwan has changed. The austere formalisms of Hou and Tsai, their precise long-shot staging and meticulous long takes that enthral critics worldwide, leave many local audiences cold. The new films are hungry to return to the spirit of early Hou, though not so much to explore the country’s past as to investigste the varieties of contemporary living; and not through long takes either, but through faster, more fluid films that attract younger audiences of the MTV generation. The new audiences consist not only of students but, more optimistically, Cineplex-goers who give themselves over week after week in Taipei to the seductions of Hollywood and ignore what comes out of their own country.

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 114.

Share

Issue 114 – Economic Reality Bites

Economic Reality Bites
Economic Reality Bites

In the first part of an examination of film activity in Ireland from an economic perspective, Erik Salholm looks at the travails of the screenwriter and the opportunities offered by television.

‘I’ve been shafted by producers several times. I don’t even think it’s malicious. They just think that’s how it is: get the writer to work for as little as possible, and most of us are dumb enough to accept that.’ Terry McMahon is a well-known scriptwriter, who works in Ireland and the US. In 2004 and 2005 Terry and co-writer Brian O’Malley won scriptwriting prizes in Ireland and at Cannes for their screenplay Sisk. Terry says that inequitable treatment of writers is endemic to the Irish film industry. ‘After months of wrangling – my lawyer told me I was getting screwed, but I compromised and compromised – I was about to sign the contract and there was one hitch: I wanted sequel rights, novel rights and stage rights – meaningless to them, but possible sources of income to me – and they refused. I just thought: “fuck you!”‘

Killer contracts
Terry McMahon’s experience is not unique. David Kavanagh, Chief Executive of the Irish Playwrights and Screenwriters Guild (IPSG) says that many screenwriters in film and TV face the same prospects. A big part of David’s job is talking writers through contracts they have been offered. ‘Occasionally we see contracts where writers have been ripped off, but more commonly we get contracts that are badly written and poorly understood by the producers who draft them and the writers who receive them. ‘For example, we often see option agreements which contain a full transfer of rights within a contract which is supposed to promise the transfer of those rights in the future! It’s a contract which is literally, technically nonsense. I’ve seen at least ten of these given to writers.’ David admits that writers do not help themselves by accepting poor terms. He says that competition among writers in Ireland is huge for the modest rewards that are available. The guild estimates that €3.25€3.5 million is available to writers a basic income for about 100 people. David says the guild has about 200 members and a further 120 are waiting to join, so he is not surprised that many writers are prepared to sign ‘a bad contract for bad money rather than no contract for no money’.

‘Assuming the contract is technically correct,’ he says, ‘the big question writers have is “how much should I get paid?” I tell them they should get €12,500 for a draft of a feature film script; that’s not a lot of money for six months’ work, but not only are writers prepared to settle for less than that, they won’t even ask. So the third level of difficulty is persuading writers that if they value their effort and their work, they should attach monetary value to it. The same goes for producers.’ David Kavanagh says that even a technically correct contract is profoundly weighted in favour of the producer and against the interests of the writer. ‘Explaining to a writer that once they sign a contract they no longer own their own project is overwhelming to a lot of people. They don’t understand that they sign away not just all conceivable rights – throughout the universe, in perpetuity – but also future copyright. So the minute they put pen to paper they no longer own the project; the producer does. ‘These are really only symptoms of the problem that contracts are fundamentally inequitable and ineffective. If this approach to the acquisition of rights was a good idea, we would be seeing lots of great Irish films and TV. But, with all due respect to those involved, we are not. So something is wrong.’

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 114.

Share

The Naked Truth

Western Plumbers
Western Plumbers

If you’ve been to the right kind of festivals (or the right kind of parties) you may have seen the cult short films Jennie Balfe, The Confession Sessions or The Day It Rained Sweets. Sometimes collaborator Jamie Hannigan spoke to the filmmakers responsible – the collective of pranksters and documentarists formerly known as Dogmedia.

Dogmedia, aka Western Plumbers, are Gary Bermingham, Tim Hood, Andrew Keogh, Ger Staunton, and Andrew Travers. All but Tim Hood (a freelance cameraman) are graduates of the National College of Art & Design, Dublin. Since leaving college in 2001, they have – as Dogmedia Productions – made a number of short films that have attracted a growing cult fanbase, whilst treading an increasingly blurred line between scripted comedy and documentary. Following a previous collaboration with the Ballymun-based Axis group (which resulted in the short film Bag of Bags), they are participating in a 10-week filmmaking workshop for transition year students at the Trinity Comprehensive, Ballymun.

Jamie: Why did you change the name from ‘Dogmedia’ to ‘Western Plumbers’?

Ger: You know the way Prince isn’t called Prince anymore, but you know who I’m on about? (laughter)
Andy: It’s just a bit of fun, y’know? I suppose, for me, it’s just not to be precious about things like that… We’re still making the films and it doesn’t matter what name we go under.
Ger: It was just to get a name on the end of the film.
Andy: Ah yeah, we needed a name to get Jenni Balfe into festivals and things like that, yeah. That was it. But we knew nothing about films.

Were you surprised at how Jenni Balfe took off?

Ger: It’s good for house parties. That’s where you see it popping up. If you just want to have a laugh… Most of the stuff we do, that’s where it gets shown, isn’t it? Besides film festivals?
Gary: It is, yeah, yeah. Usually people having a drink, having a smoke.
Andy: It’s just we were showing it to people and then someone wanted a copy, and someone else wanted a copy and… So we kinda just fed that a little, I suppose.

You all seem to switch around roles from film to film. Gary was hosting Jenni Balfe and then doing camera on The Kilo.

Ger: It’s like the Dutch with the Total Football. Everyone should be able to play in every position if you’re all thinking along the same lines.
Andy: It just depends on the writing, really, y’know? Like whatever idea we want to go with, just seeing who’s best-suited for it, if there’s role-playing in it or something like that, we kinda get an idea who’s the best person to play it.
Gary: The funniest bit in The Excuses was when we came up with the idea.
Andy: Yeah, it’s always that way. There’s like three or four meetings where it’s just coming up with the idea and writing it. That’s the funniest part, after that it’s just hard work.
Ger: Even when you get to the point of delivering the line in front of the camera during the excuse, you’ve still heard it so many times that it’s just a chore.
Andy: So with The Excuses, that whole kind of funny part of writing half of a script and not knowing what’s going to happen, y’know, we get a lot of kicks out of that.
Ger: A running theme for us seems to be, we’ll write our half of the script and we predict their half.
Andy (laughs): Basically, yeah. But that’s good fun, that’s what keeps it kind of lively.

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 114.

Share