Jacob Wrestling With The Angel is a visionary tale of a painter who is obsessed with a dream and finishing his masterpiece. He wrestles with his tenuous grip on reality but finds solace in a young lady who haunts the inner workings of his mind.
Ahead of the film’s screening at this year’s Cannes Fim Festival as part of the Short Film Corner, Film Ireland caught up with producer, Craig Moore and director, Bertie Brosnan.
Can you tell us about how the film came together and your involvement.
Craig: Well, the ball had been rolling with Jacob courtesy of Bertie and Cormac [Daly, co-writer] long before I came along. They had their script finalised and the pre-production process had already started. Bertie approached me during the fundraising to get involved and record behind-the-scenes images and videos for the crew. It was from there that I became involved further, helping him with PR and such while maintaining my duties as behind-the-scenes recorder. My role really became expanded afterwards as the film entered post-production, where I handled the organising of our screenings, constantly plugging the film to the public. It was great because doing these multiple roles allowed me to be on set a good deal of the time, and I was able to observe and learn plenty of things myself, especially from Bertie and Alan Markey, who is one of the best ADs I’ve seen. Everyone else is super too, all totally committed. I’m realy grateful that I was given the opportunity to move up and plug this film outside of a set – at the very least, it’s been a lot of fun.
You funded it yourselves – how difficult was that?
Bertie: Well it was difficult for sure – the pressure was on; but we got there in the end through using different methods of fundraising and crowdfunding, plus we hosted a ‘Filmmakers & Actors Speaker Event’, which raised us about a grand, which in today’s climate is a major success.
But we still didn’t have enough money especially for post-production and distribution, which was quite worrying to me personally but I never lost faith in the power of the project, and then John Turner literally came in and saved the day for us and the film. John is a close friend from Tralee also and I hadn’t really spoken to him in a long time and when I got a call out of the blue that he was going to basically fund the rest of the money I was pleasantly gob-smacked and over-awed by the generosity. John was supporting and watching us online unknown to myself and anyone else; so that really solidified our views on the power of social media and self-promotion. Someone is always watching!
John is now the executive producer and we did a deal that he will be involved in my first two features so it’s a great deal for John too. I’ll never forget that call when I received it, it showed me the project was, and is, special. John resides in Australia and will be back at some stage next year. I wouldn’t recommend doing what we did unless you are willing to work extremely hard and you love the project with all your heart plus you will have to fight for every cent!
How was casting – I heard you had a last minute re-cast?
Bertie: Well, casting is so vital and it was difficult. It’s extremely hard to really know what you’re looking for until you meet ‘The One’ and then you know. It’s kind of like dating in a sense, when you just click with one person. The casting process is like that – the minute I met Mike O’ Sullivan I knew we had our man. The qualities I was looking for was ‘presence’ and ‘depth’ and in another way ‘A King-Like Stature’ and Mike has all these. I knew the second I saw him on camera – he was ‘The One’ and he didn’t disappoint!
The downside though in casting Jacob was I felt that we cast way too early if I’m honest. Firstly, the project wasn’t fully developed and set in stone so it meant we actually had to let one actor go because the story changed to three characters instead of four.
Secondly, I feel casting several months before the shoot is risky because actors could literally be doing different projects and/or life circumstances change. In our case, our female actor got sick and had to pull out, which was so unfortunate because we really liked her and we were really deep into pre-production and we only had a week to go until the principal photography was about to start; so needless to say the pressure was on. But, I had to have faith and after the ‘John Turner’ incident I felt like anything was possible and that this was the right thing because everything else worked out right so far – the pressure was on for a few days, but thankfully actors aren’t too hard to find in Dublin so I put it out there online that we needed a female actor fast and lo and behold we got about 7 auditions out of about 100 applicants. And like what I said about MJ [Mike], when I met Amy Hughes, I just knew! She was the girl. And she had a great voice too, which actually enhanced the role for me. She was beautiful but not just that she had a grip on the dialogue and the context of the piece and it was so effortless to her. And like MJ, Amy didn’t disappoint.
As for casting myself well I just looked in the mirror and said “You got the role Bert!” – you can’t wait around for auditions and casting directors/agents forever!
I did okay in the end!
Craig: Yeah, in the end it worked out pretty well for us. Amy’s got such a great presence and voice on the screen, as does Michael, and as does Bertie himself. It didn’t run as smoothly as I’m sure Bertie had hoped, but in the end the product and the strength of the script ironed out any of the kinks that we had. The dedication to bringing the story to life drove everyone forward.
The interior and exterior locations are vital to the film’s feel.
Bertie: For sure, ‘Vital’ is the word. This film isn’t the usual run of the mill film – it’s mainly arthouse so it’s more about the ‘feel’ rather than a through line in my opinion even though there is a through line running underneath everything.
Craig: The locations are as much of a character in the film as the actual characters are. They’re perfectly reflective of the story’s different stages, and the feel, as you say.
Bertie: Yeah, in my opinion it’s like a moving painting in lots of ways so that coincides with Jacob being an Artist. So the locations were vital to demonstrate the look and feel of the film. Getting the locations like everything else almost worked out despite ourselves. We did a lot of running around Dublin, Drogheda, Dundalk and North County Dublin and we ended up getting all the locations in North County Dublin pretty much except for the ‘Interview Scene’ which was shot in my apartment at the time.
The word ‘contrast’ was high on my list when writing it, so what really floats my boat is expansive and intriguing locations so when we found the ‘forest’ and the ‘beach’ we wanted we were quite happy. We found ‘St. Ita’s, Portrane’ first, which actually had several other films and TV shows filmed there, which was great because they were used to dealing with film people and were so accommodating! Finding St. Ita’s was a godsend because the forest location was on there land too. St. Ita’s provided the corridor that we needed and this corridor couldn’t have been more perfect for the most important scenes of the film. These locations were so perfect it was like ‘The One’ moment in casting, location scouting is like dating too! [Laughs] I need to find a real date! The lines between film and my real life and getting too blurred.
Then we found the beach that we really liked which was Rush Beach, which was looking out towards Lambay Island. We were a bit worried though, at how expansive the shot could be without having civilisation interfering with our opening scene; but we found a good spot and then by another stroke of good-luck ‘Rush Golf-Club’ was just over the sand-dunes and they really helped us as a base of operations when shooting on the beach.
And lastly the ‘Waterside House Hotel, Donabate’ provided another location which was amazing and again they were so nice and friendly – so “A Big Shout Out” to Rush, Donabate and Portrane for being great areas to film in!
In the film the artist struggles with obsession, but beyond that theme the film tackles the wider issue of mental health.
Bertie: Martin Luther King Jr. said “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” This quote really signifies something deep routed for me and to follow up on what you stated, I believe so, and this was definitely brought to light after some screenings and reviews. I’m not going to lie and say I purposefully wrote the script to tackle any issue but when writing this script it was ultimately most prevalent in my mind: How a young Irish/European man deals with certain traumas; and relationship struggles; and his art!
For me personally art and the expression of it, can be a burden as well as a wonderful gift. I have personally struggled with separating my art from my own personally life and my relationships. I believe that in lots of ways artists struggle with mental health issues and of course as a nation Irish people are very creative and artistic so naturally from the point I’m making we struggle with our mental health; but I’m not saying it’s the reason why we struggle with our mental health, it could be just a factor.
I think in today’s generation ‘Mental Health’ is not such a huge taboo subject like it used to be just like other topical issues because of Media and Awareness; but still it’s definitely not a usual conversational piece and it is hard for people to live in the World with mental health issues.
I think our film looks at mental health through a different lense and for sure raises one or two questions. I think it’s great when everyone has a different interpretation of the film – not any two people have said the same thing to me after watching it, which is truly a dream come true for me and that’s what I set out to do.
Craig: Yeah, I’d agree with a lot of that. I’ve screened the film a number of times at this stage – including to three different groups of transition year students in Rochfortbridge Secondary School, who had a lot of different things to say. Being so young, there’s a number in that group who are constantly exposed to the single type of blockbuster film and hadn’t a clue what to make of Jacob, and as such wrote it off as nonsense. But there’s something there that spoke to a number of others, who recognised certain themes and elements working together to create a particular effect. The mental illness theme is one that you wouldn’t speak of openly and as such ironically tends to disappear to the back of your mind, until its awoken by something. I think that Jacob definitely is that something to a lot of the people we’ve shown it to. There’s definitely recognition there, and I think Bertie succeeded in bringing something different to the screen.
The film is beautifully shot; you had Blaine Rennicks on board, who’s building quite a reputation for himself these days. How did that relationship work for you?
Bertie: Blaine was more than on board, Blaine was my partner the whole way through right until today and we have plans for a feature in the works. So, to answer your question our working relationship is extremely solid and I have the greatest respect for his work and Blaine as a person. His attention to detail and his hard-working nature suits me perfectly as I’m also a very hard worker and I will not let things go and I like to get things moving and working – Blaine is exactly like this and that’s why I love working with him. To be honest, I see us making a lot of films together because I believe we suit each others style – I’m not going to lie I’ve wrecked his head because I’m very particular and can be quite strong-minded but we have an understanding and a patience to know that the right thing comes out in the end through discussion and respecting each other. Blaine was a huge creative influence in lots of small ways also in developing the project and the script, also he has helped me tremendously with the technicality of filmmaking, which I lack but I am learning.
I heard Quentin Tarantino say that before making Reservoir Dogs he was being tutored by Terry Gilliam and he was asking Terry about making films and how to do it properly. Terry simply stated that as a director your job is to ‘Articulate your vision of how the script should look and then you hire the technical crew to carry out that vision’ – this is why Blaine was the perfect cinematographer to work with, I articulated my vision and he shot it.
Jason Fernandez’ jazzy score really enhances the dreamlike quality of the film.
Bertie: Couldn’t agree more – Jason is awesome! Simple as that. He is an American living in California and although I’ve never met Jason face to face our working relationship is also very good and dynamic, Chris Kato introduced me to Jason’s work. We have worked together on three projects to date and we have already gotten to work on ideas for my feature film which is in development. What we tried to do was run themes through the film along with the different layers of subconscious – I basically had ideas of what I wanted and with a lot of tireless work and phone-calls, emails and file transfers we got exactly what we wanted. Again, it was a lot of feeling the ideas out and seeing what felt right and ultimately we ended up with one of the most powerful aspects of the film plus there are some hidden gems in the music score, which if you really listen you will hear. I think Craig has a lot to say about the music also…
Craig: Well, to me, music and sound is possibly the most important thing about films such as this. Even more simply, look at all the great films that have ever existed, and one of the great things about them is the music. I still remember the first time I sat down and viewed the final cut of the film and Jason’s music overpowered me, especially in the hallway sequence where he absolutely hits all the emotional buttons out of the park. But that’s just one moment where it’s more obvious that we have a musical score, and the most impressive thing is that overall, Jason’s music is always there. It’s never overshadowing the visuals, it’s always working with them and still manages to be a good listen on its own. And to me, that’s what makes a good score.
You both must be thrilled to be selected to play Cannes. What’s next for you?
Bertie: Well thanks we are super excited by the whole Cannes acceptance. Being a part of the Short Film Corner provides us with the opportunity to move up to the next level as regarding as careers with this film and the next projects.Going to Cannes and attending the festival, the talks, the meetings and the parties will provide us with some brilliant opportunities to network and possibly sell our film. Also it gives us the platform to pitch our next projects and ideas, which is very exciting. For me, personally, Cannes is the stepping stone to starting my actual career as a filmmaker because all along I was an actor who wrote films also but now my main aim is to be a film director and this is a great start as far as I’m concerned.
After Cannes, I will be writing my feature-length screenplay for my first feature film to direct. The treatment I’ll use as a sales pitch is pretty much down and I’m happy with that. I have the second in the trilogy of shorts that I want to make written also, it’s called Kingdom Come and it’s the follow on film from Jacob Wrestling With The Angel. I will definitely go to the Irish Film Board for funding on both projects. I will seek funds from the funding authorities on everything I do from here on in; not expecting anything but welcoming anything especially the experience of making applications. I believe this is the next step also, to make my career official, to get funding as this really helps in the submission phase for the bigger festivals in Ireland and sometimes abroad. I’m focusing on bringing film to my local area also, Tralee, Co. Kerry as I have loads of interest here from people who want to be involved in the film scene, plus FAS have a great facility down here with top end equipment that is available for usage.
Craig: I would be at a similar stage, although Bertie has a bit more experience than I have. I’ve just wrapped up my college degree and I’ve done a number of things over the past year, such as music videos and promotional videos. I also write a lot, and we’ve just got the ball rolling on a short that I’m directing and will hopefully be shot on location in the Westmeath countryside before the end of the year. Hopefully Bertie has enjoyed working with me enough to warrant another collaboration at some point. It’s all about persistence and taking things one step at a time for me, so Cannes will definitely help raise the bar on those terms – and at the very least it’ll be quite an experience to get over there and absorb the atmosphere, something I think I’ve proved to be quite good at.