Interview: Conor Horgan, director of ‘The Queen of Ireland’

Conor Horgan

Sarah Griffin sat down with Conor Horgan to discuss The Queen of Ireland.

The Queen of Ireland has been an unmitigated success on its opening weekend, but sitting down with director Conor Horgan in the whirlwind days preceding its release, there was still a sense of anxiousness. A film that represents the culmination of over five years of hard work and dedication, it carries a hugely personal weight for both Conor and his subject, Rory O’Neill.

Knowing the timeline, I wondered how Conor envisaged the documentary structurally when he began filming, not knowing the narrative arc he would eventually be gifted. “Rory is very interesting and is very politically astute and engaged, so I knew that at the very least there would be more than just a portrait of a fabulous drag queen. There was a political engagement level to it. But none of us  involved had any idea how big a part that would end up being. We were just hanging on for dear life and filming as much as we could.”

With the increased visibility of Panti Bliss, there was a chance of over-exposure, but The Queen of Ireland manages to bring a wealth of unseen footage to the screen. “I suppose people think that they’re very familiar with every aspect of the story. Panti’s been on the Late Late, on the Saturday Night Show, but seeing Panti behind the scenes is, I think, very interesting to people. And I think even more so seeing Rory behind the scenes because Rory is an unknown quantity.”

Rory has enjoyed a certain amount of personal privacy up to this point, but allowed Conor and his crew open access to his life. As Conor puts it, “the honesty, and the willingness to engage on that level is what makes it a film.” For those watching, whether the lifestyle is alien to you or not, it’s also what makes it so relatable – the personal aspect. “I had to write the director’s statement as part of the funding document and the first line of my document was ‘I identify with Panti Bliss.’”

Delving deep into Rory’s life, his parents are brought to the forefront at Panti’s homecoming gig back in Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo. Conor clearly feels at home with the O’Neills, having spent so much time with them. In fact, Rory’s sister Edel even suggested that Rory leave for the Ballinrobe show from his parents’ house with them alongside him. “‘I’ll tell you what’, she says to us, ‘it’ll make great television.’ And she’s right! And actually it’s one of my favourite moments in the film. There’s a vulnerability to Rory at that point that’s just really affecting. And I’ve a lot of admiration for him, because, at that moment, you’re not thinking that the country as a whole has given its approval to ‘the gays’, it’s still the little town that he came from.”

The general tone of the film reflects this familiarity in a way that doesn’t feel invasive, engaging with Rory’s life without being voyeuristic. Rory has said before that his one ‘talent’, the only one he will admit to, is his ability to find people to collaborate with who are good at what they do. He therefore works with people that he trusts, and it is evident throughout the movie that he trusted Conor completely. “I knew that I was in a privileged position,” Conor says, “and I did not want to abuse that trust in any way. And not just with the film, but because Rory deserved better than that.”

Conor also has that knack for collaborations, and among his many supportive crew members he particularly praises Mick Mahon, his editor: “he is just terrific, and he put his heart and his soul into it. I’m there beside him at the front of the engine room, and it’s like watching a fighter pilot in action. He’s physically wrestling the material into shape.” For any feature the editing is a crucial structural device, but even more so with a documentary, as Conor acknowledges, “Even with the best will in the world, you are finding your actual story in the editing room. I always think that any kind of film editing process is in some ways a creative argument between the director and the editor, and the material wins.”

The narrative structure was, of course, cemented by Pantigate, the 2014 debacle of libel suits that brought Rory into the national consciousness. It’s a tumultuous time to look back upon for Conor, watching it unfold for Rory in real time. “He was always giving out to me, you know, around the Pantigate thing because he knew that on one level I was thrilled that all of this stuff was happening. Well, I was thrilled on two levels, and I said it to him. I was thrilled for the film, but I was also thrilled for the country, because I knew that this would be a good thing ultimately. I think everybody did.”

It certainly seems, from an outside point of view, that Pantigate gave Rory the opportunity to build a stage, and to speak from it on his own terms. This initially took the form of the now world-famous ‘Noble Call’ in the Abbey Theatre. “That speech in some ways crystallised some of the great things about Panti, with Rory behind Panti, which is grace under pressure, incredible articulateness, and underlying that, an awful lot of heart, because that was a vulnerable thing to do. Panti, and Rory,  has described Panti many times as a suit of armour. Panti is always front of house, camera-ready, able and available give a quip, but that was Panti and Rory interchangeably and that’s the power of that. That’s why the speech has such far-reaching effect. Fintan O’Toole, who is not given to exaggeration, said that it was one of the greatest speeches given in this country since Daniel O’Connell, and I would agree.”

The response was immediate, taken up by advocates, both celebrity and otherwise,  around the world. Panti became a byword for a discussion about societal homophobia and the possibilities for change in the future. The necessary conversations therefore began over a year before the referendum for Marriage Equality, despite Rory’s humble protestations about his role in the movement. But it isn’t exactly politics that occupies Rory’s mind when he decides to speak out about injustice. “Rory has no political ambition,” Conor points out, “which is the reason that he can do what he does. But he does have a very strong sense of what’s right, which is also the reason he does what he does. And the fact that this, until relatively recently, benighted country under the cosh of the Catholic Church and a lot of other things just like it, has taken this giant drag queen to its heart is just fucking wonderful. If he was just a great drag queen then maybe it wouldn’t have happened. Panti’s a great drag queen who’s also just really, really smart, really able to formulate and deliver compelling arguments for equality.”

Indeed Panti can articulate, but the film isn’t just a showcase for the undoubted talents of this consummate performer, it shows the maturing of a country in a very personal manner. “In a way, we had the big political end,” Conor continues, “but the personal, as Rory says in the film,  always trumps the political. It’s one of the reasons the Marriage Equality referendum was passed, because people realised that it was about actual people’s lives, not just a technical, political or intellectual argument.”

There’s no denying that the ‘Yes’ vote is a climax in the film; the excitement that filled the country sweeping even the camera crew along in its infectious joy. “There is a shot of me in the film outside PantiBar on Capel Street after the official result is being announced, and I’ve got a huge beaming smile on my face, and Kate McCullough, [cinematographer], has a huge smile, and Aoife Kelly [assistant producer]. We’re all incredibly emotional, because you can’t not be, because this is real stuff and it matters. And you know, we all voted, we all took part in this, and to see how well it turned out is just massively emotional. It doesn’t stop you doing your job. It just makes it a very, very good day in work.”

Still, where The Queen of Ireland shines most is in small moments, those wonderfully private times where we watch Panti walk down the street of Ballinrobe, flanked by family, or listen to Rory talk candidly about his life off stage. In the end, this documentary is a very personal testament to a public figure who happened to play a crucial role in our country’s evolution. “Sure you couldn’t make it up,” Conor acknowledges, “and if you did, nobody would believe you.”

 

The Queen of Ireland is currently in cinemas

 

 

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Feminist Film Festival: Equality in Filmmaking Is Not So Frightening This Halloween

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Joy Redmond previews the second Feminist Film Festival, which takes place 30th October – 1st November at Dublin’s The New Theatre.

 

The origin of Ireland’s only Feminist Film Festival reads like a Hollywood script – Karla Healion, a graduate traveling through Asia meets and is “blown away by a group of amazing former female victims of human trafficking” in Nepal. Back home and embarking on a Masters in Film Studies, Karla wants to raise money for their charity – SASANE which they established in 2008 by to train, educate and support other women who need help.

Noticing the many one-off events, premieres and talks but the absence of a full festival/weekend and just so the Feminist Film Festival is born.

Running from Friday to Sunday over the Halloween weekend in The New Theatre in Temple Bar, Karla maintains “it’s all about raising a few quid for these women while celebrating and supporting women in film. While we might get some great representation of women on screen, the vast majority of principal roles (director, editor, producer) are men so it’s good to support women behind the camera. It creates more of an equal industry. Having said that, it’s not a whinge fest – our first screening will be followed by a free talk on the ‘Achievements of Women in Film’ with Dr. Jennifer O’Meara (Maynooth University) because we have much to celebrate.”

Now in its second year, the programme has something for everyone, including the Irish premiere of Mary Dore’s She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, a documentary charting the U.S. women’s movement between 1966-1971.

“This year, all films are directed by women so it’s really important to make sure they get the exposure they deserve if we consider that only 5% of big budget films are from female directors or even closer to home, that 13% of films funded by the Irish Film Board are written by women so it’s all about trying to get more parity. The upside to the lack of blockbusters headed up by women is that when you approach the companies regarding the licence or the possibility of a premiere, we end up talking to actual filmmakers themselves, it’s interesting like that and makes it kind of intimate.”

The programme is eclectic to say the least and is the result of the work of a group of volunteers over the last few months.

“Instead of an overt theme, we wanted to be representational, e.g. a film that represented the non-western experience (Shinjuku Boys), something Irish (Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey), an Irish premiere (She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry), which is a real coup for us considering it sold out in the London Feminist Film Festival – it’s really inspiring and shines a bit of light on the journey since the early ’70s and, indeed, what hasn’t changed. We were delighted to include the 1962 classic Cléo from 5 to 7 by Agnès Varda and because of the weekend that’s in it, we had to include a Halloween Horror special with Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook.”

One learning from last year was the lack of appropriate material for younger girls so Whip It should prove popular: “It’s a coming-of-age movie which should resonate with 12 year olds and up. It’s a really powerful message to younger audiences that the filmmaker behind the character is a woman and we want them to walk out and think ‘that was made by women, i could do that’. The festival is about empowering people of any age and getting the point across that women can be cultural producers and not just consumers of art or being objectified.”

It’s not all moving pictures either with a fair smattering of talks and panel discussions chaired by academics and film makers. Karla’s personal favourite of the weekend’s line-up, the closing panel discussion chaired by Professor Maria Pramaggiore (Head of Media Studies, Maynooth University): ‘Forms of Feminist Film: Fiction, Non-fiction, Experimental’ with Lelia Doolan (filmmaker; director of Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey), Dr. Maeve Connolly (Co-director ARC programme, IADT), Jesse Jones (filmmaker and visual artist), and Tess Motherway (documentary filmmaker and festival director at Dublin Doc Fest).

So put the Halloween weekend in your diary for Dublin’s second feminist film festival in the New Theatre in Temple Bar.

“We’re really happy to be back in this intimate environment – the layout is friendly/close knit, everyone is on the same level so the venue is very appropriate venue to our ethos, no podiums and mics just everyone sitting together and chatting.”

With intimacy comes a limited capacity of just 66 seats, so audiences are advised to book in advance to avoid disappointment. Tickets can be bought online or free talks booked here

Just like the 2014 festival, ALL profits from the Feminist Film Festival will once again go to Sasane and the Sasane SOS/Sisterhood of Survivors, Nepal. No money will be taken for admin, handling or processing from the profits, the event is run voluntarily.

 

If you can’t make the festival, you can DONATE DIRECTLY HERE:

Further details and information about the Feminist Film Festival is available on their Website: http://feministfilmfestivaldublin.com

Or you can contact them directly via Email: info@feministfilmfestivaldublin.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FeministFilmFestival or

Twitter (@FemmoFilmFest)

 

 

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Interview: Sean Garland, director of ‘Banshee Blacktop’

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Director Sean Garland talks to Michael Wynne about his first filmic foray into frenzied psychological horror, Irish-style

Over the summer the Irish Film Institute held a private screening of Banshee Blacktop, director and screen-writer Sean Garland’s first-time venture into horror-drama, an anxiety-ridden, high-octane-intense epic shot chiefly in the desolate bogland of the Irish north-west. Featuring the gutsy portrayal of a manic, harassed (ex-) monk by well-known Dublin theatre director and actor Liam Halligan, the emotional shocks of Blacktop stem from ancestral curses, atavistic myth-lore, and the uncultivated, elemental landscape – the outer reflecting the tumultuous psychic terrain of the characters in the midst of their being pursued by unaccountably vengeful forces.

With a number of shorts, music videos and an internationally acclaimed documentary on his résumé, this is Garland’s first venture into feature-length movie-making, and one over which he exercised full control: as well as writing the script – for which he’s been described as having a poet’s way with words – he also wrote the score. While the tired word “gritty” fails to serve justice to the textured bleakness that saturates the film’s atmosphere and visuals, there are nonetheless shades of contemporary fast-paced American noir present; just as much, Garland’s influences owe themselves to films characterized by traditional story-telling and by haunting suspense accomplished in an artistically leisurely way, films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock, Night of the Hunter and Neil Jordan’s modern fairy story The Company of Wolves. Indeed, it was through his stints as a crew member on such high-profile projects as Jordan’s Interview with a Vampire, and Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father, that Garland cut his professional teeth. On the strength of these credentials, he had the good fortune to be invited to the California studio founded by Francis Ford Coppola, for the task of completing the sound on his latest project. I ask him what that experience was like.

“It was terrific, hugely gratifying. We edited and mixed all our sound in the Zoetrope Building right there in the heart of North Beach. Sound Designer Jim McKee was a consummate professional; because he created such a relaxed, easy environment the work itself felt handmade, spontaneous. The history of the place was enthralling of course: I definitely felt the ghosts of The Godfather, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now in the hallways. Even when I flew back to Dublin Jim worked long hours in the studio then took it across the bay to finalize the mix at PIXAR.”

Whereas his original conception involved the kind of film that relies more on drama than out-and-out horror – “a kind of Whistle Down the Wind meets The Offence,” as he describes it – in the process the project became “more brutal and thriller-based,” a result he’s very happy with since this aspect “offsets the lyricism and sometimes hallucinogenic tone of the island sequences” and in doing so helps to attain his early aim of giving the supernatural elements a “natural feel,” thereby achieving overall “a stronger, more robust film”.

As a first-time feature director, were the unrelenting, rather visceral demands made on his acting crew something he found he had to steel himself to ask of them? “The truth is I pushed and exerted myself in the same way throughout the shoot, or at least tried to…simply to show them that I’m willing to go that extra mile. Making movies is physical work, labour intensive and mentally taxing.” It should be these things, he opines, in order – certainly in this instance – to “display that rawness,” adding, “I will always go out of my way to show the actors I’m right there in the trenches alongside them. The cast of Banshee Blacktop gave so selflessly of themselves.”

Rather than wanting to break the horror mould or upset the established conventions of the genre, Garland declares that, where he’s concerned as a film-maker, the emphasis is on storytelling, and insists that what he’d like to accomplish through his own contribution to the medium is retrospective, a “‘glance back’ to the genre when it relied more on character, story and tone than bloodletting or outright shock.” On the other hand, he admits that what attracts him is expressing “the kind of subtle suggestiveness that arouses an uneasy feeling in the viewer coupled with the occasional manifestation of physical gore. I mean, why not?”

On this last count he doesn’t worry about criticisms involving gratuitousness since he sees visceral violence as the logical stock-in-trade of the genre that makes horror what it is. This unhesitating thumbs-up for blood-letting may seem curious in one whose favourite films are often notable for their anaemic restraint; but it is the passion inherent in the vision – no matter what form that passion takes – that matters most for Garland. Nor is he surprised at the never-abating craze for the supernatural among cinema-going audiences, at a time when the strictly rational is so predominantly fashionable in many quarters: “What people want to see represented on-screen are their fantasies, their darker side, things that might not necessarily be easily explained away: this is what entertains certain types of film-goers and, in a way, all of us. This will never change.”

When it comes to funding, Garland says the entire process of the film’s three-year development was “very much fly by the seat of our pants,” and in fact the finished work, which he describes as an Irish/UK/US/Finnish co-production, was done in large part thanks to the grit and the imaginative resources of all those involved. Having no institution behind them he feels was a blessing, since the completed project is unsullied by the compromises involved in what he calls bodied decision making. This independent trend he thinks is emerging more and more in his chosen medium. “There’s a whole phalanx of new Irish filmmakers digging in the dirt themselves and unearthing exciting new films. They don’t wait for funding, they get on with it. We had to. And all that energy, impossible to cheat and replicate on most productions, is right there in the movie.”

While in Ireland we’re still very much at the infancy phase when it comes to indigenous, or semi-indigenous, cinematic horror-fantasy, Marina de Van’s critically successful Carrie-esque Dark Touch back in 2013 (a film that, like Garland’s, has a rural Irish setting) could perhaps be said to have helped shift things onward a degree. Still, like many of the auteurs he most admires, Garland has no intention of playing on the one creative note, and, to demonstrate this, scrolls down on his phone through an ideas-list as lengthy as it is eclectic in subject-matter (at the top is a note for a project on the life of the real Pocahontas as opposed to the sanitized Hollywood version). He admits, though, that movies with heavy leanings toward horror and the paranormal will always ignite his imagination. Any future projects in mind that he thinks might advance the cause of a distinctly Irish brand of this perennially popular genre? “You’ll probably roll your eyes at this but for a long time I’ve had a plan to do a movie with Daniel Day-Lewis playing Dracula. I think he’d be the best yet.”

On the evidence of Banshee Blacktop, the possibility is tempting to contemplate.

 

There is a free screening of Banshee Blacktop at 21:30 in Meeting House Square on Saturday, 31st October 2015.

 

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Interview: Gerard Lough, director of ‘Night People’

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In Gerard Lough’s Night People, a pair of professional but badly mismatched criminals break into a vacant house to carry out an insurance scam. Awkwardly thrown together with an hour to kill, they reluctantly start telling each other tall tales. One concerns two friends who discover a mysterious device that may be of alien origin. The more they learn about it, the closer to breaking point their friendship is pushed. The other is about an ambitious business woman who provides a dating agency for wealthy   fetishists. She attempts to escape this shady line of work by taking on a new client who’s  habits may be of the vampiric variety. As the night progresses the line between fiction and reality starts to blur and the hidden agendas of both thieves become apparent.

 
 
David O’Donoghue broke into director Gerard Lough’s house, to carry out an interview ahead of Night People‘s world premiere at the IFI Horrorthon Film Festival.

 

What particular sci-fi or horror films, styles and directors influenced Night People?

The film has a lot of influences. It’s kind of a strange mix really! Anthology series like The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents were definitely a big part of it. For anyone like me who grew up in the ’70s or ’80s they definitely had a big impact. Also, the New Romantic music scene was a big influence. If anyone one film influenced Night People though it has to be Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983).

 

What was it that prompted your use of the anthology-like story-within-a-story style?

Definitely those anthology series. But also I was interested in the idea of tall tales and urban legends. We’ve all known urban myths we associate with out towns and with our people. I even remember on the playground when I would hear urban myths about films- like everyone involved in The Exorcist died or maybe it was Poltergeist or The Omen, they could never quite get it right. But I think urban legends are very interesting and so I tried to use these hyperlinked stories in the film

 

The film has a number of topics that are very important in public debate at the moment: the economy, property and sexuality. Do you intentionally draw on these themes to create powerful cinema?

The recession is all around us; we’re particularly badly affected here in the northwest. In some ways you can’t avoid it. But also there was an element of convenience to it. A lot of the story is set in a vacant house and there are plenty of those around here in Donegal. I’m not a political filmmaker but I do think I was saying something about my country in my own way. Still ambiguity is useful and more interesting to me, even if it can be tricky.

 

Do you feel making sci-fi or horror films makes it more difficult to produce a film due to prejudices against genre films?

Initially, I didn’t think so. But as I’ve gotten more involved in filmmaking I definitely have noticed something I might call ‘genre snobbery’. You’ll go to a production company and as soon as you say your film is a sci-fi/ horror they say “no, it’s not for us”. There is definitely a certain snobbery because Irish films can be so focused on social realism and historical films. In my case though, I just don’t care about genre, I want to make a good film. I’ve heard some people talk about an ‘Irish New Wave’ shedding new light on genre films – I don’t know about that but wouldn’t it be great!

 

A large portion of the film was filmed around your native Donegal. Did you enjoy capturing your own area on film?

I think there are definitely a lot of places in Donegal that are really unusual and isolated and that there are places so great you could shoot a Michael Mann film or even Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings. For example, the beach that is used in one of the stories in the film. We only discovered the place, just a while up the road, shortly before filming and we found all these wonderful caves which ended up in the film. I love to shoot the real thing. It’s sitting there on your doorstep so why not shoot it right there. I really enjoyed giving the area a sense of perpetual twilight, misty and dark almost like a noir film.

 

What’s next for Gerard Lough?

Really I’m just focusing on this film now, taking care of it. I’m anticipating the premiere and how the audience will react. They say a premiere is almost like giving birth in public. In the future though, I would love to do something based around the New Romantic music scene. It was such a brief thing, it really only lasted from 1980 to ’81, but it was so interesting. I love the style and the sound of it.

 

Night People screens on Sunday, 25th October 2015 @ 23.00 as part of the IFI Horrorthon (22 – 26 October)

 
Book tickets here

 

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Interview: Pat Murphy director of ‘Tana Bana’

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Pat Murphy’s documentary Tana Bana takes us to Varanasi, the ancient city on the Ganges where the uneasy peace between Hindu and Muslim hinges on the world-renowned silk-weaving. Because every single aspect of Varanasi life is fused with the production of handwoven silk, the existence of this ancient Hindu city depends upon Muslim weavers. Loosely structured as a day in the life of Varanasi, this unique, intimate documentary explores how the Muslim community of weavers respond to huge economic shifts in their lives and shows the difficulties they face in passing on traditional weaving skills to their children. The film also gives voice to the changing roles of women within this enclosed world.

Gemma Creagh caught up with Pat Murphy to find out more about her documentary.

 

First off, I have to say what a beautiful film you’ve made. I was drawn into this film. It was so visual and mesmerising. Tana Bana is a window into a world that we don’t usually see.

Thank you. Often people just have a view of India – or they go there and have a particular experience. They don’t really have access into how it works, how a world like that works. I loved making the documentary because my experience was like the viewer’s experience, getting that look through the window, as you said. What I wanted was for people looking at the film to experience what we did when we were there.

 

The local story of Varanasi is a universal theme. With the advent of technology, certain jobs and ways of life are becoming obsolete. We see in your film how this culture is slowly dying and how hard people are trying to survive in it. There’s a truth to it that really resonates in modern times.

One of the things that sometimes is problematic is when people often say: ‘Oh, it’s progress, you can’t intervene. It’s just relentless – that’s just the way is.’ If you are trying to talk against it, you come off sounding nostalgic, or that you are looking back into a previous time. But that’s not necessarily the case. I think that kind of view is a very depressed view of the world. It’s like we are not agents of anything. We are merely victims of the movement of time or the movement of capital and we cannot intervene and change it. I just don’t think that’s true. I think it is possible to intervene and change things. I guess one of the things I thought when I was in Varanasi was that if this weaving goes, this city will go. Some may think it’s quite medieval or something. But actually it’s not. It looks like it’s from the Middle Ages but at some levels it’s extremely modern in the way it is so integrated.

 

There’s a great a scene where the young school girls are asked about ‘love’ marriage and everyone unanimously agrees it will never work. This moment is fantastic in capturing those differences between our societies, and in the West, we think we know it all – but do we really?

One of the things some of the locals said to me when we were not filming was: ‘We know what you think of us; we have cable television!  But we know that in the West sometimes women have to go on the internet to find husbands. Why is the way we do things more problematic than that?’ I was setback on my heels by that really. Basically, there’s an assumption that we, as Westerners, know about feminism and we know what oppression is.

One of the things I found really challenging when I was there – I found the ground pulled from under me – was the notions of: what is freedom? What is respect? How many kind of feminisms are there? Because all those young women would see themselves as a strong feminist women, although they want to be married and they want to live within their traditional society.

The school teachers are the same. When I was growing up; my idea was to get away. It was a notion of freedom of getting away from the situation I was in. Going to college in England or going to New York or going somewhere else. It’s very powerful when these women say how educated they are, and that they want to stay where they are and improve the situation for women within the world that they live in. It’s very strong when they say that.

 

That’s exactly what came across in Tana Bana. The school teachers were such strong leaders moving the community.

Also, the thing about the teachers, one of the things that I think is important and is a point that is made in a subtle way in the film, is that it’s a Muslim school set up for the children of weavers because their educational situation was so bad. It’s a modern school but half the teachers are Hindu. That doesn’t mean much to us here but that is a huge statement in India. In a culture where Hindu and Muslim are often pitted against each other, there are places like Varanasi where tolerance and understanding is happening. I found that very impressive.

 

You mentioned earlier about the integration of the people in Varanasi, which is evident here on a wide scale, but there’s also a strong sense of home and unity there.

At the very beginning, I thought what I was going to do was make a film documenting the weaving processes. But just being there changed that. Being around those people and seeing how indivisible what they do is from the way they live and their family – and the fact that this thing is a very organic family enterprise.

 

So, the nature of the documentary evolved over time?

Yes. The more time I spent there and the more I made my own contacts, the film and my ideas about the film, really changed. When I was going there at first, all I kept thinking was that these weavers were victims of globalisation and somehow the film has to present this problem and solve it. I think one of the things that filmmakers do – and they have to do it, in a way – is to find the spine of the story. What is the storyline that is carrying you through?

In general, that is what documentary filmmakers do. It’s a very Western thing to do. Often filmmakers look for one person or one family and tell their story. Those documentaries or television programmes  are about someone in the developing world struggling against insufferable odds which they overcome. This is a human story that we all identify with.

But, for me, the reality of being in Varanasi upends all that. It just really challenges you. What I found when I was there was, that this was a whole city in which everyone was connected in some aspect to this weaving. Either they are weavers, or they are designers, or they are polishing the saris, or they are cutting the saris, or they are doing embroidery, or are mending the looms.

My point of view was to tell this story; it’s actually a city full of people where this extraordinary activity goes on. You do recognise people that we stay with but it’s not essentially their story, their individual story. It’s a whole huge, huge thing.

 

Tana Bana is currently screening at the IFI

 

 

 

 

 

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Interview: Steve Gunn, director of ‘The Caller’

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Anthony Assad sat down with first-time director Steve Gunn to chat about his short film, The Caller, which screens at IndieCork. The Caller tells the story of what happens when an unemployed man receives a visit from the rent allowance inspector and things get a little too close for comfort.

 

The Caller is based on the play Fishes by David Fennelly, an actor contemporary of yours, who starred in the production as the hapless jobless Larry and reprises his role in the short adaptation. Can you tell us how you were exposed to the play and what led to your rendition of the material in The Caller?

I saw his play in Smock Alley as part of their Collaborations festival. It was a 20-minute version of what went on to be a longer play. I have always wanted to make a film; my main focus is acting but I’d always wanted to make movies. I thought I’d love to do something with the premise of Dave’s play. I loved the fact that there was 1 location with 2 characters. I approached him after the play and asked if there’s a chance he’d let me adapt it for a short film. I told him that I loved the premise – the rent inspector guy calling round to the gaff unannounced. I was on the dole years ago and I just thought that was brilliant. I’d love to take it and make a short film out of it. He was excited and thought it was a great idea. So I said I’d get a rough draft to him in 2 weeks. Three months later I woke up one day and realised it had been that long since I’d had the conversation with Dave. So I went over to the laptop and, for some reason, it all just came out. I needed to squeeze the play down into 8 minutes but I was able to kind of write it all in one go, which was great.

 

Was the screen version much different from the play?

It was different from the play, particularly the rent allowance inspector character. I knew I was going to have him call to the door, they were going to sit down, they were going to have a chat. But we go off in a different direction with his character – I wrote a monologue for him. I wasn’t really concerned where the play goes. I just needed to find a button to end it up on.

 

Was there any trepidation casting David again, considering his role in the stage production? How did he feel about someone else handling the reins and interpreting the material?

No there wasn’t. He had some screen credit under his belt. He was in Killing Bono and a few other things. I like the way he performed on stage. I like his style. I had no concerns at all really. As for me handling the reins of his personal project, when I wrote the 1st draft, which didn’t really change that much to what’s on screen, he read it and told me that he wasn’t sure about where I was going with it. And I said, ‘okay, let’s meet up and I’ll explain to you why I’m right’ [laughs]. So I met up with him and explained to him why I was right. Seriously though, the whole thing could have fallen apart at that stage. Dave could’ve dug his heels in and gone against the direction the film was going. But he is open-minded and was happy to run with it.

 

Alan Howley took on the role of the inspector, who was originally played on stage by John Doran. What happened there?

Originally, we were going to use both John and David. We were trying to nail down shooting dates. But John had a one-man show and was unavailable so I started looking to replace him with a different actor. Then it struck me that John was actually a bit young for the film version I was trying to create. I was thinking it might be more interesting with an older character there, someone who had been through his youth. Plus, I like that they’re both a certain age and are both messed-up people, which is hilarious. It worked out really well.

I’d worked with Alan on Fair City. That’s how I know him. I nearly strangled him once – he was a bit of a mouthy cab driver and I was this ex-army guy he was having a pop at; so I was able to grab him by the throat, which was fun to do! Yeh, we got on very well. He’s very practical, down-to-earth, although he’s done some crazy stuff in theatre, physical/dancing stuff . So he has a nice mix.

 

Which was perfect for this restrained official and then all hell breaks loose.

Yeh. Perfect. I was glad to get him.

 

There is a nice duality between both characters. You’re not gunning for one or the other.

Hopefully, you have sympathy for both. And that’s a credit to the actors, they flesh them out and make them human.

 

Both men are frustrated with their lives and the system that governs them.

When people are going about their business and their daily lives, a lot of the time you’ll meet their representative. There’s someone else in there that they’ll only show to their partner, family or their best friends. I think this film cuts through those layers fairly quickly. It’s kind of raw and it’s kind of primal. And that can be funny. It rips away all the conventions of how we’re supposed to behave. People like Larry David would be a big influence on me. I love that humour. What you are supposed to say and how you are supposed to act – and what happens if you don’t do that.

 

Did you find your experience as an actor afforded any advantages or insight when directing?

I’d like to think it did. I tried not to get in the way of their performances too much and, credit to the lads, they really put the work in. I tried not to over direct – but you would have to ask them if it was in any way pleasant to work with me. But I’d like to think that I try to be encouraging and supportive and not over directing.

 

Philip Graham, your director of photography, worked alongside you on The Mario Rosenstock Show. What attracted you to the idea of working with him again and for your directorial debut no less?

I’ve learnt lessons over the years being in short films and things like that. One of the most important lessons I learnt is having a really good DoP.  Sometimes you think I’m gonna save up and get a really good camera. Why not just ring up people out there who have already done that. Philip is a legend. When I worked with him before I loved the way he was lighting stuff. When I sent a message to see if he would be interested I didn’t think he would have time. But he did. I might have caught him at a good moment because he’s very busy, often back and forth between here and England where he does a lot of work. He does a lot of TV stuff but he is really into drama. So, when I met him he was excited about the idea. I wanted it to be shot really well and I wanted it to look like a movie. I knew he would be able to do that. He was great to work with.

 

You also had Tom Lane on board doing the music.

His work really lifts the film as well. I basically met him at a party. I knew he did what he did. I told him I’d just made this short film and asked could I send it to him and see if he wanted to put music to it. Thankfully, he said yes. I told him I was thinking cellos, like in Mike Leigh. When the film opens he’s walking down the street and you hear these cellos… it gives it a sort of seriousness… a bit of Mike Leighishness! But then he does this brilliant thing at the end, which is where he brings in other instruments around that cello melody. And there’s a sense of peace. It’s just a gorgeous piece of music.

 

The film went on to premiere at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh and was selected to screen in the Underground Cinema Film Festival with a nomination for best comedy. I’m sure you’re used to seeing yourself on screen but how does it feel seeing something you’ve directed doing the rounds?

It’s amazing and a little nerve-wracking and exciting. I can’t speak highly enough of the experience. It’s like when you’re on stage and it’s opening-night. There’s a moment when you can feel the audience lock into the story and that’s a great feeling, you know you’re onto something. I love the relationship between an audience and a play or a film. I’ve seen it twice now with an audience – in Galway and in Dun Laoghaire. What’s great about it is that there might be a bit of a titter and then a bit of a laugh. And then, on both occasions, there were some great big laughs and that’s amazing – to make people laugh – you feel both relieved and excited.

 

You founded your own production company, Barren Lands, to produce the film. Do you have anything else on your slate for next year perhaps? Are you planning on directing again?

I would like to direct again but I’ve nothing planned. I’m busy with the soap, which is good. I made this film with the hope that I might get a little bit of money to make the next one –  but I haven’t sat down and set things in motion yet. But that’s my plan.

 

The Caller screens on Friday, 9th October 2015 in Programme 3 of the Irish Shorts at IndieCork Festival (4 – 11 October 2015)

 

You can download the 2015 IndieCork festival programme here

 

 

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Doing it with Passion: Writers in Ireland Series: Hugh Travers

Hugh Travers

 

Caroline Farrell’s series of interviews with screenwriters continues with Hugh Travers.

 

Hugh Travers is a graduate of D.I.T (B.Sc. Film and Broadcasting) and The Huston School of Film (M.A. in Screenwriting). He received a scholarship to The Professional Programme in Screenwriting at UCLA. He has written a number of award-winning short films, and is currently working on Over The Bar, a feature film in development with the Irish Film Board, Deadpan Pictures & Dan Films. Over The Bar was recently selected for The Brit List, a shortlist of the best unproduced scripts of 2014. Most recently his critically acclaimed play Lambo completed a national tour, was nominated for the Little Gem Award in the Dublin Fringe Festival and was adapted for RTE Radio. It won the PPI Drama Award for Best Radio Play of 2014. His previous play Clear the Air ran at the Theatre Upstairs in Dublin and the Electric Picnic Arts Festival in Stradbally. He recently completed Rough Magic SEEDS, a two-year artist development programme for theatre writers which included staged readings of his plays Cardboard City and The Disappeared. Hugh co-wrote The Variety Show, an animated series, produced by A Man & Ink and RTÉ and he developed The H-Files and Chicklings with the IFB and Paper Dreams. He created the comedy panel show format Choose or Lose with Screentime Shinawil and RTÉ and was head writer on the pilot episode, and was the head writer on The Big Pitch, a panel show pilot for Sky. Hugh was also the writer and chief researcher on Green Is The Colour, a hugely successful four by one-hour historical sports documentary series for Treasure Entertainment and RTÉ.

 

You are obviously a prolific writer, Hugh. Tell us how you got started?

I wrote terrible songs in secondary school so always had an interest in creative writing. Then I began to write scripts in college. I studied Communications: Film & Broadcasting but really started writing through the drama society where you could kind of put on anything you wanted and have the freedom to fail.  I then specialised in writing for my final year and went on to do a masters in Screenwriting and a professional programme in UCLA.

 

Freedom to fail, love that! And your first big break?

Well, I came back from UCLA in 2006 and started properly trying to chase funding and make applications to get things off the ground for the first time. In early 2008 I got funding for an Irish language short (An Cosc) through Filmbase and TG4’s Lasair scheme, so it took me about a year and a half before I got anywhere. It’s hard to know if that short was a break necessarily but it was a small step on the road. I had written a rough first draft of it on my own. I pitched the story idea to the producer Claire McCaughley. She really liked it and so we reworked the script a bit before applying to Filmbase. Then once we were shortlisted we got Vincent Gallagher on board to direct. The same team then got funding for a second, English language short not long after and things began to build slowly from there.

 

Do you have an agent, Hugh and do you think one is necessary?

I do have an agent and I have found it to be very helpful. We have a good relationship and it’s good to have a supportive ‘consultant’ as much as it is good to have someone fighting your corner on contracts and getting you meetings etc. Is it necessary? No it’s not essential at all. I think it’s possible to get ahead just fine without one but it has certainly helped me. I think once you reach the top-level, it would become absolutely essential.

 

Do you contribute to the PR and marketing of your work, for instance on social media?

I’m more a consumer of social media than I am a creator of content. In other words I’m on twitter but I don’t tweet. I’m on Facebook but mainly as a procrastination tool rather than as a means of expression. But when it comes to marketing, it’s a completely different story. I think it’s essential. You have to find your audience. The right people for your work. They’re not just the people who will pay to see it, they’re the people who will actually enjoy it because it’s in their wheelhouse. So if they’re on facebook you have to communicate with them there.

 

Back to the practice of writing. How do you structure your time?

I keep office hours. I generally start at ten and finish at six. Monday to Friday. A lot of that time is naturally spent avoiding writing but I do try to put myself in the chair for those hours. I am at least threatening to write!

 

And how long does it take you to complete a script?

It depends. A first draft of a feature script can take anything from a few weeks to a few months. But the real writing begins with the rewrites. That can sometimes take years, depending on what the process is.

 

Do you place much importance on film competitions and awards?

I think for a writer, awards and competitions can be very helpful early in your career to get people to take you seriously. If you’re lucky they can buy you a few months of attention or replies to your emails. But I think it’s important to remember that not all writers and not all scripts fall into the categories that tend to win awards or place well in competitions. They’re not the be all and end all. I think when it comes to getting a finished film seen, they are really helpful. In the crowded market place, they hang a lantern on your movie and allow it to be noticed. It’s easy to be dismissive of the industry love-ins but I think they are a necessary indulgence.

 

Any thoughts on our film industry in general?

We’re living in strange times as far as film goes. I think there has never been more opportunity and yet things are getting more difficult. Technology has opened up all manner of possibilities and yet it has had a lot of side effects.  The streaming and VOD model is still bedding in and it remains to be seen if it will work financially for filmmakers. Illegal downloads can be damaging to smaller independent films. The tent-pole movie culture in Hollywood has squeezed out grown-up dramas, comedies and mid-range films. So ultimately it’s easier to make a film than ever. But it’s harder than ever to get that movie seen and to make money from it. And consequently, it’s harder to get paid to write them.

 

And on indie film?

I love the fact that indie films continue to exist because at the moment, it’s the only way that interesting movies are getting made. Again, I think the independent sector is still in flux. After the initial boom in the 90’s we’re probably now entering a new era with streaming and VOD and different distribution possibilities but the jury is still out on whether it will be boom or bust. It could be hugely hugely positive and usher in a new golden era or indie films could go the way of indie music and the music industry in general where passionate artists are making great work but it’s next to impossible to make a living.

 

Have you self-funded or considered crowdfunding for a project?

I did use crowdfunding to stage my first play. It was a great resource and I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who rowed in behind that project. I do think you have to use it responsibly. I will never say never but I don’t plan to go back to the well any time soon. You’re essentially asking family and friends for a dig-out and you can’t do that too often. Unless I ended up in an unusual position where a project I was working on had interest from the wider public but couldn’t get traditional funding. If you were genuinely finding a way to service a demand that was out there by allowing an audience to effectively pay in advance, then crowdfunding is absolutely the way to go and that’s a responsible way to use it.

 

I’m learning through this series that feedback, and how we handle it, differs from writer to writer, particularly if it comes in negative form. How do you handle such reviews?

I’ve been lucky enough to have avoided scathing reviews. There have been a couple of middling to negative ones and the ease with which I shake them off depends on the nature of the project. The worst review I got was probably for a comedy panel show that I worked on but the whole point of the show was to be genuinely silly and embrace that completely so it’s easy to be philosophical about that. I’ve never been panned for my plays or my work on TV but even good reviews often include the odd throwaway criticism and you have to remind yourself not to obsess about that one line.

 

Given your experience to date, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Find a way to stay in the game. If you have had any sort of indication that you have talent and aren’t banging your head up against a brick wall, then it’s all about staying in the game until your number comes up. For some people that involves working a day job and writing in your spare time. For others it’s working part-time in a bar or cafe or shop. Maybe it’s even trying to get by on the dole. Whatever your way is, you need to keep living while you keep trying. If you’re good – and if you’re dedicated to continually getting better – your number will come up eventually. So find a way to stay happy, to stay writing and to pay the bills while you’re waiting.

 

And ‘write what you know’ – agree or disagree?
It definitely helps but it’s not at all essential. I’ve written about worlds that I know nothing about and written stuff that has been a little autobiographical. I feel they both scratch different itches and each option still requires due diligence. In the ‘write what you know’ scenario you have to stop yourself form being too self indulgent and getting too close to the material. You have to still see it as a story in its own right and allow it to go where it needs to go, not in the direction of your experience. With the other stuff, it just takes research. Lots and lots of research.

 

Is there a film script by another writer that you wish you had written?

How about a book that became a film? I’m a big fan of The Butcher Boy. I’m not sure it’s something that I necessarily would write – even if I could – but it’s one of those pieces of work that has always resonated with me for reasons that I can’t even properly understand or analyse.

 

Apart from your feature, Over the Bar, are you are working on anything else right now?

The reality of being a working screenwriter/playwright is that you have to have a lot of irons in the fire and a lot of work in development. It’s necessary to pay the bills but it’s also necessary if you want to get something produced. If you’re concentrating on one piece of work, your odds might not be great. You have to keep all the plates spinning and hope that one of them will somehow take off. I’m hoping to do a new play next year and I have a few exciting feature and TV projects in development, which I hope will go into production soon.

 

Thanks, Hugh, and just for fun – six people, living or not, that you would like to share your favourite beverage with?!

Woody Guthrie, Larry David, Amy Schumer, Louis CK, Billy Bragg, Orson Welles – literally the first six people that came into my head – in that order.  And my favourite beverage? Currently a whisky sour.

 

Caroline Farrell has written several feature and short scripts. Most recently, In Ribbons, which she wrote and co-produced, screened at the 2015 Belfast Film Festival and the Corona Fastnet Film Festival. Caroline blogs… on writing and film… and on a few of her favourite things.

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Interview: Alex Fegan, director of ‘Older Than Ireland’

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Alex Fegan’s documentary Older Than Ireland tells the story of a hundred years of a life as seen through the eyes of thirty Irish centenarians. Beginning with their youth and working up to their thoughts of the afterlife, each person shares their extraordinary stories of a life that has shone for over a hundred years.

Alex explains that the idea for the film came about when he met a man who was going to a 100-year-old’s birthday party. “I just thought that was amazing. I asked him what was she like and he said she was in great form. That triggered the idea and things took off from there.”

Being born before 1916 and with the centenary coming up next year, Alex felt it would be an interesting way to get an historical perspective from the nation’s older citizens. Yet, as Alex admits, the film found its own narrative and rather than Alex looking to tell a particular story, the story began to tell itself. “That’s the great thing about documentary – you can start off in a particular direction but then you can discover a whole new thing. We realised as the journey went on that the film really isn’t about history at all or being Irish. It’s about being human. I suppose more things have happened in the last century than any other century – and while that’s in the film, it’s really irrelevant. The only thing that matters is the personal stories and these are stories of relationships. That was the big discovery. Ultimately, when you reach the pinnacle of the mountain of life you know that what matters is your spouse, your kids, your family and your friends.

“Early on we had an idea of going through the decades, so the film had various narratives, starting off with the ’10s, then the ’20s and ’30s and so on, and asked them what their thoughts were about the 1929 crash or the political situation in Ireland in the ’40s or ’50s for example. But very soon we realised they weren’t that interested in talking about such things. They just didn’t have a passion for that. What they did have a passion for was their wedding day, their first kiss, telling a story about their first pair of shoes. The stuff that probably everybody else will think about when they reach 100 – things like their school days,  first girlfriend or boyfriend, how they proposed to their wife, how their husband proposed to them, their honeymoon… these are the things that they really wanted to reflect back on. You ask what was your happiest time and that’s what they would talk about. So what we initially set out to do just didn’t transpire in the way that we thought it would. What quickly became apparent was that this was a film more about their personal journey than a sociopolitical journey.”

Ultimately, this is what makes Older Than Ireland‘ such a wonderfully warm and tender film. You never feel that the people involved are being interviewed. It’s more that they are being allowed to talk and tell their stories. “I suppose what we ultimately decided was just to hold the camera up to these people and let them do all the talking, deciding to try and stand out of things as much as conceivably possible. You’ve got to remember”, Alex continues, “these people are 100 years of age and over. They’ve got a lot more wisdom then we do – they’re really authentic and they have zero pretence whatsoever. They just say it as it is. They don’t care what I think or what anybody else thinks. They just speak their mind. So, ultimately, what we wanted to do was to capture these people who are spiritually and soulfully as authentic as you can get.”

As well as offering a rare insight into the personal lives of the individuals featured in Older Than Ireland, the film also exists as a great personal archive for the families of those involved in the film. Alex talks about how families have sent on emails saying how grateful they are. “Especially for those centenarians who have since passed. It’s such a nice thing that they have this film. As well as that, we will be providing all the footage to them – we had about two hours, at least, of an interview per person, so it’s a lovely record. Sometimes you don’t take the time to put the camera on people and just let them tell their stories. One of the reasons this film got made was because when we went to the Irish Film Board with the initial idea, which they really got behind, they said to us that no matter what happened with the film, it would exist as a great archive.”

Finally, Alex hopes that the film will encourage families to visit the cinema together. “We are trying to encourage young people to take their grandparents to the film. It could be seen as a cynical ploy to get more people into the cinema but one thing we did discover making the film was that a lot of older people find loneliness to be the biggest issue. They all want to go to the cinema. They might not want to watch The Avengers but I’m sure they would like to see this film. So we are hoping that younger people will take their grandparents or elderly neighbours to see the film.”

 

You can check olderthanireland.ie for screenings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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