David Smyth sat down with writer/director Bertie Brosnan to talk about his work, influences and his experiences in the Irish film industry.
Bertie Brosnan and I sit down in a small room on the top floor of the Film Base building. He has waited patiently for me. I am half an hour late. If my rudeness has soured his appetite to talk about his work, it doesn’t show. His second film short, Sineater, has been officially selected for show at seven festivals and was also accepted as a part of the Short Film Corner at Cannes 2015. It is a brooding meditation on the nature of forgiveness, and it is a film that Bertie is justifiably proud of.
I have my questions ready, but Bertie Brosnan is passion personified. From the moment you meet him, his love for movies and the process of film making is instantly apparent. It’s a powerful force that threatens to derail any interview, no matter how well planned. What started out as a simple conversation about his work, turned into a run-away discussion about anything and everything. The interview became an entity, an energetic fractal conversation about the Irish movie business. There is an old saying about best laid plans, and I was about to experience its real life manifestation.
Even the most perfunctory questions illicit engrossing responses. I ask him about his introduction to the world of acting and film making, and his answer is a story of sacrifice. Having fallen into the scene while in college in Cork, he realised that only by giving himself entirely to his newly discovered craft, could he really get the most from, and give the most to it. He cut out everything from his life that could be considered an anathema to his vision, drink, partying and a social life in general. He did not need to tell me this, you know from the way he talks about movies that he has given much to get something back. He exudes dedication. Just like any movie, a lot of what we talked about is left on the cutting room floor. There is only so much space.
Growing up, what and who were your cinematic influences?
The film culture I had in my life growing up was very basic. One of my favourite films growing up was First Blood.
That’s a bloody good film.
I know, I watched it again recently. It’s a classic film. It deals with some hard themes, mental illness from Post-Traumatic Disorder, it wasn’t until I re-watched it did I see it was a very hard-hitting emotional film. My parents were fairly easy going, the house was fairly liberal. I watched a lot of horror like Childsplay and Poltergeist. And thrillers; the likes of Jaws and other commercial classics. I remember Jurassic Park in the cinema and just the awe-inspiring feeling from it, that and other films such as The Matrix that had such cinematic scope and amazing ideas truly changed me…
I won’t even watch Childsplay now
I think those types of films fed me, you know, I deal with a lot of the same dark themes.
In my youth, I didn’t think of actors as a sole thing – only films and the stories being told, I guess that’s why my first love is film production and acting is a very close second. When I began to study acting and actors, I watched obsessively Pacino and Brando who were certainly my favourites, and James Dean. His aesthetic, his look. His presence. But Brando was a true actor, he just had it. They say that the minute he walked into the audition for Street Car Named Desire he immediately had the role. He couldn’t even speak properly as acting coaches would have you, but this man had such a presence, and had until the day he died. Some people just have it and its natural… nowadays I really respect Tom Hardy, Leo Di Caprio, Fassbender, Mel Gibson when acting/directing Braveheart, and Russell Crowe… these guys don’t mess about but I always think an actor can over expose themselves and that’s why Daniel Day Lewis is such a phenomenon, he chooses carefully and makes every performance memorable. Female-wise I love Penelope Cruz – her passion and feistiness is always something to be admired. Marion Cotillard is wonderful also. I think I find European women very watchable and have great depth. My favourite filmmakers are Nicolas Winding-Refn, Hitchcock, Mel Gibson, Nolan, Kubrick, Scorsese, David Lynch and Fincher… I couldn’t live without Refn or Kubrick though, tonally and thematically, they are my cup of tea.
Let’s talk about Sineater. It is getting a lot of very positive press. Can you tell me a little about it?
Sineater is essentially the story of a business man going home to see his mother, but his picked up by a dark, mysterious stranger. What happens after that is anything but normal.
We see the character reliving some of the more unpleasant moments of his life, do you feel that any of your own personal experiences influenced you when you wrote the short?
There are definitely some influences from my own life, but more heightened. In general, in today’s society, mistreatment of women is still a problem, and we see some of that. But for me, and it’s something that I have experienced, it’s a story of a man realising that his actions have profound effects on other people. It’s something that many of us don’t get to see, but in Sineater, the main character gets shown the consequences of his actions.
The main character is very dark, with some fairly nasty experiences under his belt. In some ways, the driver is absolving him of those misdemeanours. Do you feel that the main character is deserving of that forgiveness?
I’m going to give you an inside secret. When I was directing Sean, I told him that when you get out of the car, everything in your life is gone. The illusion about you, the ego you have constructed is gone. Everything that you have constructed is over.
That’s not necessarily a reward. It’s a new state for him. But it’s not a prize.
The film is seven minutes long, but you ask some very serious questions in it. It really does make you think that, although as you say the experiences are heightened, you may have some parts of your life that you really aren’t proud of.
I want people to ask questions, I want them to re watch the film and get a new meaning from it. This character has created a huge distance between him now, and the events of his past, and what is happening is that he is faced with his past. If you can draw parallels between that and your own experiences, that makes me very happy and who is proud of everything single action taken in their lives.
When the main character steps out of that car at the end he is clearly a very changed man. You spoke about the sacrifices and the demons you faced at the beginning of your career, so again it is very easy to draw comparisons to the character in the film, and your own experiences. Is the film very personal to you?
Look, I’ve hurt people in the past, and made a lot of mistakes. Everyone has. I try and rectify my mistakes when it doesn’t hurt the other person and I try to evolve and change for the better. And I believe strongly in forgiveness, especially the ability to forgive one’s self. Until you do that you can’t change your life, or who you are.
The film itself, while only seven minutes, flows seamlessly. The main character goes through a huge change, but it never feels uneven.
Thank you. We wanted to show a character going through hell, and I think we did that in the short time that we had.
It’s funny you should mention hell. In this film, and more so in your other short, Jacob Wrestling With the Angel, there is a religious subtext. Is that by design?
I’m not very religious, but I definitely draw inspiration from religion. With Sineater, I took inspiration from an old Judeo-Christian tradition of a village sin eater. In days past, if someone died suddenly, and had no chance to absolve themselves, a Sineater would be employed to sit by the casket all night to devour the dead person’s sins. I do draw from religion, because for me religion is mythology. I love mythology. Bible scholars and/or fundamentalists take religious tradition so seriously, but when you take it as mythology, there is a lot to learn. For me, taking cues from the mythology of Christ, or taking them from the mythology of Cuchulain, it’s the same. In Sineater, it’s a death of the self, and a resurrection of a new person.
The film is garnering a lot of attention. Is that something you are surprised about?
We had gotten into three festivals with Jacob and the Cannes Short Film Corner, so I wanted to make something a little bit more commercial than Jacob. I had a feeling that if I tried something a little more main stream, because Jacob isn’t particularly commercial, I knew we would get more attention. But I didn’t think we would get into six festivals and Cannes Short Film Corner in successive years, and I didn’t think we would win an award. It’s great for everyone involved really. I work with the same people normally on each of my projects, and I want them to feel proud of their work.
Let’s talk about some of the people you are working with. Blaine Rennicks, is the cinematographer. He has won an award for the cinematography on Sineater. Tell me a little about him.
Blaine is one my best colleague in all honesty, and we have worked together on several projects. He is an amazing guy, very technically gifted. I have a vision for what I want to do, and he feeds of that. He gets excited by the scripts, and I get excited by that excitement. He also is a great counterpart to my personality. He’s very calm, composed, where I can be a little driven. I can get feisty. He’s living in London, really getting some new experiences, but he is moving back to Ireland soon. It’s very exciting.
Let’s talk briefly about Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. I found it a little harder to penetrate that story. Was that intentional? It’s almost enigmatic. It almost has a weird sci-fi feel to it.
I had written a script in America called Dream Girl, about a man who falls in love with a girl in his dream, and chooses to opt out of his life to be with this girl. He is a character suffering with depression. At the time I was concentrating on acting, so I wrote myself a lead role. So Cormac Daly, the man who put me on to the sineater tradition by the way, and I incorporated the script of Dream Girl into Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. Then I got together with Blaine and worked on that script. It references, subtly, how the American dream is a fantasy, and we did a lot of research into the idea of the American dream, and their culture of advertising. The Jennifer character in the film is almost the personification of that ideal, and the main character has fallen in love with her. Jacob is an artist struggling with his mental health, and she’s distracting him.
You acted the main role in Jacob, how did you find that, acting and directing?
It was a crazy ordeal. Ben Affleck has gotten some plaudits for his ability for acting/directing, but he probably has two hundred crew helping him out at any given time. When you are acting, directing writing and producing, on a low budget film, it’s insane. I won’t do it again.
That brings me nicely into my next question. As a small independent movie producer, who has had to investigate ways of self-funding, how do you feel the business has changed in your time, in relation to how you go about bringing your movie to the screen?
Well I can only talk about the independent movie scene. Making Jacob was a struggle, it was almost as if I became the main character but I love it because it was like film school for me. I winged parts of it, I executed detailed plans on other parts. We raised money for it through a Dublin event, and some through Indiegogo and GoFundit. In the independent scene now, everyone seems to be doing projects, everyone seems to be involved, because funding through the likes of Indiegogo and Gofundit makes the process of funding a little easier. It’s great that everyone is getting involved, but I think before people do, they should ask themselves am I really ready to sacrifice what I need to get my film made. I had to sacrifice a lot to get to where I am now.
Do you feel that there is a perception that following your dream, in the movie business at least, is a succession of red carpet premiers and Champagne receptions?
Exactly, I mean at the moment there is a lot of good press for Sineater and lots of festivals and pictures on social media – which people see and judge, that is only the tip of the mountain in which we had to climb for months and years, you only see us at the top for a brief moment of time. Then there’s the dark times, especially during Jacob: There was some good reviews, yes, but some people didn’t get it, and behind my back people called it a piece of crap, I think that’s a sign of jealousy or success. So I choose to take the positive that at least they are thinking about me and my work, even when I’m insulted or right out abused which I have been recently by an ignorant so and so, I take it as a sign that I am actually doing well. This road is tough and you will always get people who will criticise and try to pull you back, but not me, I already have won that battle in my mind, and I only compete with myself and use other’s success as an example of a map to success. When people hate, it’s because they are not fulfilling their own ambitions, I know this because many times I was one of them, not anymore. I guess that what I’m saying is there is a lot of sacrifice, a lot of negativity. But there are a lot of positives too.On a different topic, there are some great things happening in the south of Ireland right now, where people making movies are starting to cast appropriately. That’s another thing that has changed for the better. You don’t need to be in Dublin now to follow your dreams. It’s starting to change.
What are your plans now for future projects?
There is a feature film in the works, that I can’t say too much about, but we have a prominent actress attached, and we are actively seeking a male lead and some real producers. Next step is financing, which is already underway.
True to the precedent I set on the day of the interview, I was late typing up the transcript. Due to a work induced upheaval of my life, I have only just been able to sit down and relive the hour I spent talking to Bertie. But the enthusiasm that he emits is not diminished even slightly by the lapsed four weeks.
The business Bertie Brosnan has chosen to make his business is notoriously cut throat. It is a business filled with occasional highs and all too frequent lows. But if the qualities for success are passion, ability and honest-to-goodness hard graft, then I can think of no-one more certain to succeed. If the Irish movie business going forward is lucky enough to enjoy the input of people with half as much enthusiasm and capacity as Bertie Brosnan, then the future is certainly bright.