From the Archives: Interview with Albert Maysles

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

And you are still making films in this way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He played the trumpet?

Yes he played the trumpet but never as an occupation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So is it easier now to make films like Salesman?

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

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

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

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

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

You don’t seem to ever get disillusioned Albert?

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

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

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

Are you making a film about John Lennon solely?

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

The film will co-exist with the book almost?

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

Are you and Yoko Ono still good neighbours then?

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

 

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

 

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

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Interview: Rebecca Daly, director of ‘The Other Side of Sleep’

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The Other Side of Sleep is released today on DVD. Amanda Spencer caught up with director Rebecca Daly before her debut feature screened at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2011 to chat about the film.  

This interview originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine. Issue 137. Summer 2011.

Sensitively directed and stunningly photographed, The Other Side of Sleep is on its way to Cannes. The film, which is Daly’s feature directorial debut, follows the success of her short films, Joyriders and Hum and is produced by Morgan Bushe and Macdara Kelleher of Fastnet Films.

Co-written with Daly’s writing partner Glenn Montgomery, the film follows Arlene, a young woman who struggles to decipher between the real and the imagined after a local murder stirs up old grief. Her sense of reality is challenged as sleep deprivation and raw emotion compete and draw her into further disarray. In the telling of a big story, Daly hasn’t forgotten small touches. It’s this light hand that makes The Other Side of Sleep a really superb debut feature and as the film wings its way to Cannes, I caught up with Rebecca.

What inspired the story for The Other Side of Sleep?

It started with a newspaper article about a young woman whose body was discovered wrapped in a duvet in a shopping centre car park in Northern Ireland. What struck me about the article was the way in which the journalist had accumulated lots of different anecdotes about the dead woman from various sources – and how these stories contradicted each other, making it impossible to establish the truth about this girl’s life.

In the earliest treatments the film’s protagonist was the dead girl but as it evolved we became interested in exploring the situation through a person unconnected to the victim. Arlene became our focus and we were looking at the various experiences of shock and grief within the story through her very particular viewpoint. I can’t remember when the sleepwalking element entered the story but this really fascinated us: that a person could be active or acted upon but not conscious – throwing up complications of responsibility – and have no memory of what happened once awake again.

Where did you meet Glenn, your writing partner? Had you written a feature together before? If not, was it a very different process?

We met studying Drama in Trinity years ago. We wrote my first short Joyriders together and had developed another very low-budget feature idea but ultimately both of us felt stronger about The Other Side of Sleep. Glenn and I have different strengths as writers, which seems to work well. Also, we have a bit of a laugh together, which can be really helpful in an intensive writing process, I think.

As the project was selected for the Cannes Résidence du Festival programme, I got to do a chunk of the writing there and then we would get together talk about structure etc., and redraft. It wasn’t often that the two of us would sit in front of the computer and try and write together, we would rather discuss and then I’d do a draft or he would – or sometimes we’d take sections. The script went through many drafts. It was a constant filtration process as we had so many ideas that we wanted to explore in the beginning that we kept having to select from or cut down – this continued to be the process through the making of the film; keeping a handle on the themes and ideas and deciding what was essential and trying to make sure I kept the audience focused on what was important.

Why was the Midlands chosen to locate the story?

My family is from the Midlands so it’s a region I am really familiar with. It has a particular atmosphere that I thought would work for the film – visually also I wanted a pretty worn look and so it was great to be able to shoot it in a region that hadn’t been too affected by the Celtic Tiger.

Thinking back, how did you view the opportunity to direct your first feature – all guns blazing or were you a little apprehensive? Did the Cannes residence programme better equip you, do you think?

I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to make this film. Of course making a feature is a pretty big leap in terms of the demands it puts on the director. It can be daunting at times, but it’s such a great opportunity. Mainly, I was really excited to be able to do it. The Résidence was a brilliant space to write the film in – really this is the main purpose of it. And I was living with five other directors, some of whom had already made their first feature, so this was inspiring in itself.

Shooting your first feature, did you feel your role as director was better supported, coming from shorts where often there isn’t as strict a division of labour?

I think that, like in shorts, in low-budget feature filmmaking the division of labour still isn’t that strict. Maybe it’s the job of the director to delineate this at times when it’s not clear. Honestly, for me one of the most difficult aspects was establishing these lines, for myself as much as anyone else – I learned a lot from this experience.

Had you worked with the key crew before?

No, actually. When I met potential crew obviously I wanted to see how they ‘got’ the script – especially how they responded to and picked up on the detail within it – as that for me is a very important aspect in the maintaining the style and also building the narrative of the film, from small textural details. I had worked with my editor, Halina Daugird, on my last short so this gave us a great shorthand when it came to the edit.

The casting for the film is really perfect. Did you get to spend ample time with the actors before shooting?

For me the actors are my key focus in making the film. The casting was pretty complicated in that the cast is a combination of five professional actors with the rest being non-professionals that we found through open castings in the area. It was important to find the right balance with them; that the acting level and pitch of the non-professional and professional actors would fit. I wanted to create a tone, a kind of naturalism and to keep in mind that in the course of the film some of the key characters are in shock. I wanted to capture that sense of helplessness, paralysis and desperation, a kind of unbearable powerlessness in their means of expression.

I made sure to have as much time with them as possible in advance of the shoot where we explored the key characters as real people with history and context and tried to find ways, particularly for the non-professional actors, to access and identify with the experience of the characters. We looked at the details of specific moments in their pasts as I thought if they could have a vivid picture of certain incidents – it could build up a kind of imagined memory for the character that they could tap in to. Antonia came down to the Midlands two weeks before the shoot – we decided that it was important for her to immerse herself in the world, so she effectively lived as Arlene for the two weeks prior to the shoot. With Arlene it was important to find her way of expressing herself as a product of her past and her lack of understanding of it.

The film is funded from a few different sources, which is increasingly common. What was your experience of that?

I’m not sure how it would be possible to fund this budget level without the mechanism of co-production. It seems to work really well. Also, it meant we worked with some key personnel from the co-production countries which I think was a great experience for everyone.

Is there a scene that is particularly special for you? Why?

My favourite scenes are towards the end of the film – so I probably shouldn’t spoil them… One that stands out for me is the scene in which Arlene works late in the factory and she is disturbed by Bill. I really like what her laughter does here in terms of contrast within her character and also what it does to the tension of the film. People watching the film usually laugh at this point, which is kind of strange in the context of the whole film. I like that.

Are you working on other scripts? What’s next for you?

I’m researching a couple of books that I am interested in adapting for the screen plus Glenn and I have a few ideas that we are discussing. I really want to find something that hooks me like The Other Side of Sleep did – it takes so long to make a film that the challenge is to still be interested in it by the end of the process.

Amanda Spencer

This interview originally appeared in Film Ireland 137 Summer 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Give Up Yer Auld Sins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Last Elk

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

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

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

 

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

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From the Archive: Paddy Breathnach Interview

Shrooms-still1

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Do you live in LA now?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Dread

 

Exactly….

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Were they good to you, those films?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And you felt that that wasn’t the case?

 

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

 

Within its genre you mean?

 

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

 

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

 

Or Intermission or another Irish film…

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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