Tony Tracy sat down with Donal Foreman to discuss his debut feature Out of Here, which screens at the 2014 Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.
Donal Foreman’s debut feature Out of Here opens on twenty-something Ciaran (Fionn Walton) returning home to Dublin from travels in Asia and follows his experiences over the subsequent days and nights of reconnecting with people and places once familiar. Displaying elements familiar from American ‘mumblecore’ cinema, it shares a kinship with films such as Tiny Furniture, Uncle Kent and Francis Ha (among others) in its sense of liminality – its POV controlled by a central character at a threshold moment in his life and a loose-limbed, largely plotless narrative of mood and situation. In addition to such comparisons, the film is also an entirely consistant development of stylistic/formal and thematic concerns evident in Foreman’s earlier short films and exhibits filmic properties espoused in his considerable and intelligent written reflections on cinema (see donalforeman.com).
Out of Here marks a considerable contribution to contemporary Irish cinema on a number of levels. Its rejection of traditional narrative practices (particularly ill-fitting genres), its cosmopolitan tone, its sensitive and fresh portrayal of masculinity and relationships, and its use of locations that ‘re-map’ cinematic Dublin, all contribute to a film less defined by a sense of national identity than a sense of place. Nevertheless, while it avoids being explicitly ‘Irish’ cinema in any narrow or prescriptive sense of that term (beyond its setting), the film’s tentative, only half recognised sense of home seems both specific to the wandering, cosmopolitan Ciaran (a post-modern Stephen Dedalus) and a tonally apt encapsulation of the dazed and confused national condition as we emerge from a decade of awe, then shock.
In the year that the IFB celebrated it 20th anniversary, the conditions of the film’s production – crowd-funded (without development but with some completion funding from IFB), shot on the RED EPIC with a tiny crew but great skill and edited in New York (where Foreman now lives) – also sets it apart from earlier practices deemed essential to the development of a national cinema, while linking it to micro-budget digital narratives from a new generation of feature writer-directors such as Rebecca Daly, Ivan Kavanagh and Mark O’Connor among others. Regardless of its status as a debut feature, Out of Here feels remarkably assured and engaging, suggesting that Donal Foreman will be a film maker to watch in the years ahead.
How far back does your ambition to make films go?
I started when I was 11. It was a very intuitive kind of thing where one of my friend’s Dad had a video camera and we were playing around with it, making little movies and we just got obsessed with that. So it started as a social activity and after a while we found our roles within that. I became the cameraman and I suppose parallel to that I was starting to watch more films and get interested in them. So at 13 we put a film into the Fresh Film Festival (www.freshfilmfestival.net) and that really ignited our focus to keep going. At 15 I figured out how to edit the films with a VHS recorder instead of just stopping and starting the camera. So that just kept going forward technically.
I guess I also had a curious mind about film history and one thing would lead to another. Tarantino was probably the first one who made me think of individual shots and the director’s vision. Then I heard he was influenced by Scorsese, who was in turn influenced by Cassavetes. So I think I was around 15 or 16 when I started reading more film history and criticism like Ray Carney (editor of Cassavetes on Cassavetes), who introduced to me the idea that film could be a way of challenging yourself, exploring the world and figuring out things you didn’t understand. From then on I had a real urge to try and do something more serious that would actually reflect the world around me and my friends.
In my early teens, I also got really into writing scripts, initially just because I liked how they looked! I wrote about four ridiculously surreal feature scripts, and then in my mid-teens I started getting into more personal scripts, where the main character would usually be me while all the other characters would be these one-dimension ciphers. It was later on, working with actors, that I learned to put myself in the shoes of each character, no matter who they are. It becomes a necessity because you need to talk to each actor in terms of their character’s point of view. I still think I need to put some part of myself in each character, but it’s actually a lot of fun when there’s differences too, and you’re forced to step outside yourself a bit.
Those short films – and now Out of Here - tended to leave out a lot of exposition and make the viewer work with the film.
I had a sense early on that what I preferred in films were the gaps where things were left to the imagination – like Kiarostami’s idea of an ‘unfinished’ cinema. I try to follow those principles. I’m more interested in images and moments than storytelling per se, so I had no interest in having a moment of exposition which would disrupt the form. I had more of these dilemmas making a feature film. Say someone gets a text message and you cut to a close-up of the text message so that the audience can read it. There’s no real aesthetic value in that. It’s just this ugly totally functional shot there to give you information – I felt more committed to the image… I was like I don’t care if you need to read that text message, I’m never going to put it in!
I like the fact that his family aren’t at the airport to meet him when he returns.
That’s an example of where the image comes before the narrative. I wanted the scene of him alone at the airport, and getting the bus into town by himself. I didn’t want the sentiment of the homecoming greeting. Once I had the image, I started figuring out how to make it work for the characters and the narrative.
I know the screenplay was in development for quite some time. How did you finally get it to production? Did you apply to the Irish Film Board?
I never actually applied to the Film Board because I never wanted to do script development with it. I was in an international script workshop called ENGAGE with it shortly after I graduated. It was for writers, directors and producers graduating from Screen Academy Scotland, the National Film School at IADT and the Baltic Film & Media School in Estonia. You’re taken to workshops in each country, and you go in with a project and they try and team you up, and prep you for assembling co-productions. I went in with this project Out of Here and half way through I swapped it and pitched a sci-fi kids escape movie instead, which I felt would be more productive in that context. I felt my project wasn’t going to be helped by pushing it in that forum because there wasn’t much room for co-production unless I filmed his travels or brought in a bunch of foreign characters just for the sake of it. Also a lot of the notes I was getting on it were ‘you need more plot’, ‘the character needs to do this’ – pushing for a stronger narrative structure to the whole thing. That there should be a deadline and a clear tension like ‘is he going to get on that flight to get out of the country…’. I wasn’t interested in fighting those interpretations so I didn’t pursue it.
I felt the only way I would do it with the Film Board was if they would not go through the years of script development, which I have seen hurt a lot of projects and filmmakers. I didn’t think I had a chance at bypassing that process without a big company backing me, and I wasn’t having any luck on that front. I was also thinking that if one of my shorts got into one of the bigger festivals that would give me a legitimacy to move it forward. But that didn’t really happen. After pitching it to a few established companies, I tried to find a producer but it was tough because there were no strong independent producers looking for first time writer-directors without a track record. At one point I was thinking I would even try and produce it myself, but that would have been an insanely bad idea because it was already a difficult story for a micro-budget. Eventually I came across Emmet Fleming, who already had some experience with this kind of budget and totally got what I was trying to do.
How did you raise the budget?
Emmet had the idea to do a crowd-funding campaign based on this investment model that he had seen a Belfast company, Manifesto Films, use earlier that year. We had the option to donate and get a gift in return, as you would with Kickstarter, but we also had a second option where for €150 you’d get a share in the future profits of the film, and that’s where most of the money came from. I put in some cash as well but most of it was from people buying shares. The investment model works well I think because there is a greater sense of ownership for investors and a greater impetus to help the project to succeed.
So was the script pretty much there at this stage?
Not completely. We started fundraising with a detailed treatment and began casting and then we did two weeks of rehearsals. I wrote dialogue in rehearsals. I would give the actors the premise of the scene and see where it went. So we would workshop like that and then I would write the scenes in the evening. Then we would rehearse the written version and see how that worked. So by the end of rehearsals we had the full script.
So you began with a scene by scene treatment?
Yes. I had a detailed 30-page treatment which described most things in detail except for the dialogue. I also had older drafts of a full script to draw on, as I had been developing the project over a five year period.
What was the starting point of the story?
From the very start it was the idea of this guy’s return to Dublin after a time away. The thing that excited me most initially was the shift in his perception of the city on his coming back, that it would be so familiar to him and have all this history, but him stepping away and then coming back would create this sense of estrangement. Like if you walk the same way to work everyday you stop seeing the details around you, but if you were to go away for a year and then come back, all of a sudden it’s a new street.
By the time it was in pre-production I had already lived in New York for a year and so I was perfectly poised for it. That first month back after New York, I was finding new ideas for the film everywhere and everyday.
Lets talk about casting. How did you find your actors?
I had a few people in mind already. I had a whole database of actors in my head of who I would like to work with. If an Irish actor has a showreel online I have seen it at this stage. Part of it was how the characters were going to interact together, but mainly it was the traditional way of seeking out actors from what we had seen them in. Then there were people I knew in Dublin who had never done any acting but who were just characters who I know would be really interesting within a certain scenario. And I tried to collect people from the different worlds in the film like some people from art school and so on.
And what about the central character – played by Fionn Walton?
Fionn came out of the Actor’s Studio in The Factory. So much of the casting came together quite easily but the lead was the hardest thing by far because he carries the whole film. I wanted someone with a certain kind of charisma who would be compelling to watch. It had to be someone who you would just want to watch even if they weren’t doing much anyway, that they would hold the screen but without being a “pretty boy” or a macho actor. I wanted someone who was still a little bit awkward and boyish. So just finding that balance was tough.
What was your experience of the shoot?
The shoot was by far the most challenging thing I have ever done, most of all because of the time pressures. It’s not obvious, in the middle of things, what you sohuld compromise on and leave out or what you’re going to regret later. We had 20 days to shoot something that had way more characters, crowd scenes and location changes than is ever advisable for a micro-budget project. We didn’t have a lot of money to throw around so we were often at the mercy of other people’s commitments. As a result, we shot ridiculously out of order in terms of continuity, mainly because of location availability and actors’ schedules. Aoife Duffin, for example, was shooting the second season of Chris O’Dowd’s Moone Boy throughout our production, and was only available on weekends. It was really not ideal for the story, but I think we managed to pull it off, and having rehearsals definitely helped.
Was it an obvious choice to shoot on the RED EPIC camera?
Yes – that’s the camera my cameraman Piers McGrail owns. He’s shot all my fiction shorts since film school and I knew I wanted to work with him. But the EPIC didn’t make life easy. Sometimes it might take two hours to light and I’d get 10 minutes to do the scene because the EPIC requires more lighting, more equipment and expense in general than the RED. There is so much lighting in the film – apart from the exterior daytime stuff, everything in the film is lit. And it is very exact, so while the film looks fairly natural it is actually quite contrived.
Given that stylistic commitment to naturalism, how did you manage sound?
For the most complex scenes, we used 2 boom mikes and 4 radio mikes: I wanted these people to be free to interrupt and talk over each other. And we deliberately have no score but there’s quite a bit of diegetic music from local bands at various points. Some people find the lack of a score a bit difficult but there’s a whole visual arc to the film that goes from a cluttered, claustraphobic feeling to a more open, lighter sense and I wanted to reflect that in the sound design imposing it through musical cues.
Lets talk about the edit and arriving at your final cut
I edited by myself in New York over about six months. The main challenge was that there was a lot of material—30 hours in total. The first assembly was 3 hours and the first watchable cut was 110. I thought I’d never get it down to 80 mins. But the first time I did a test screening (to a group I’m part of in New York, the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective) I cut 20 minutes out the next day. I hadsuch a better understanding of the pacing of it, just from watching it in a room with other people. I could feel people just waiting for the end at a few different points—even I was.
The film’s use of location is striking – you manage to add to the cinematic city of recent Dublin-set films like Adam and Paul, Kisses, Once and What Richard Did.
I always saw this character and his return as vehicle for exploring the city and explore the different aspects of it. I was asking myself, if you were in Dublin in your early 20s, what possibilities are open to you? What social spaces, domestic spaces, and how do you express yourself in different spaces like the pub, or at dinner with your family or wandering around by yourself. So I was thinking about locations that would help explore those different facets. I also had a bit of a thing about how the city has been represented cinematically – that there has been generally been a failure of representation – with the Dublin often functioning as a backdrop rather than a character. Obviously there are exceptions to this but I wanted to be attentive to the spaces of the city and so I very deliberately mapped the action to reflect that.
Tony Tracy lectures in film at the Huston School of Film and Digital Media, NUI Galway.