A Response to Sounding Off: Making Irish films that people want to watch: my thoughts on Mark O’Connor’s manifesto

Screenwriter and producer Eilis Mernagh responds to Mark O’Connor’s Sounding Off article: ‘The New Wave, The Fís And The Rage’, which featured in Film Ireland magazine Issue 142 Autumn 2012

Mark O’Connor, the writer and director of the low-budget feature film Stalker, read this manifesto out at the Fleadh, before a screening of Stalker.
I like the idea of someone putting themselves out there and bothering to write up a well thought-out manifesto. There’s something brave and maverick-ish about this. Vive La Revolution and all that! I like even more the fact that he had the balls to stand up and deliver it in public (it’s also printed in this month’s Film Ireland magazine btw).However, I do disagree with him on a bunch of points. Actually quite a lot of points.

I do agree that we are experiencing a bit of an “Irish New Wave” and that there’s a lot of interesting stuff being made. I also agree with him that Charlie Casanova has an “astonishingly powerful cinematic voice” and is one of the most intriguing pieces of work ever made in Ireland. And on a no-budget at that. But…

He goes on to say that “We have for too long focused on perfecting the script when in fact some of the finest work in this country, such as ‘Tin Can Man’ and ‘Pavee Lackeen’, came about through a uniquely personal way of working. These films show that the logic of film can work in a very different way than a rigidly plotted out story on paper.”

This is where my heart starts to sink. Like most writers, I believe that starting a film without a properly worked-out script (not necessarily rigidly plotted, there has to be room for manoeuvre) is like starting to build a house with no clear blueprints. What do you think the final product will look like? If the builder is a complete genius and manages to make it work, it will still be great. If he’s an average Joe, well…

When this kind of point comes up, people always mention Mike Leigh. Yes, Mike Leigh can start with nothing more than an idea and improvise a whole film. But Mike Leigh IS a complete God at what he does. Most directors are not Gods (most writers aren’t either, for the record).

But there’s more.

“Unlike the ‘Auteur’ or ‘Shreiber’ theories favouring either the director or the writer as the true author of a film, the ‘Fís’ Theory holds that a true singular voice can only be attained when the director is also the writer. If the director does not write it then they must rewrite it and reinterpret it into their own vision”.

This reminds me of when I went to a screening of “Our Wonderful Home” by Ivan Kavanagh at JDIFF a few years ago. Following a silence during which you could smell the depression off the audience, a woman got up during the Q&A. She asked Ivan Kavanagh (rather pointedly) whether he thought it had been a good idea to write, direct and edit the film himself. She was heavily hinting that it might have been better to get another perspective.

For me, and I accept that this is not everyone’s view, film is a collaborative medium that relies heavily on a bunch of creative people working together. I write a script, a director directs the movie, someone else does the costumes, someone lights the set, etc etc. I have zero interest in directing and if a director has no interest in writing that should be okay.

Sidney Lumet wrote a brilliant book on making films where he dismissed as ”’auteur’ nonsense” the notion that the director is the sole stylistic voice on a film, and he said he went out of his way to give credit to everyone from script girl to star. He discusses how he worked heavily with the writers on each of his films and always put story first. In other words, he respected the talent of those he worked with and got the most out of it.

Just to be clear, I’m not a writer who always thinks the director is out to mess with my script or who would resent changes being made along the way. I’d think it was strange if compromises didn’t have to be made, or if other viewpoints weren’t taken into consideration. But it’s a rare person who is just as excellent at writing as they are at directing. And I feel that a lot of people are out there doing both not because they can do both well, but because they don’t want to compromise “their own vision”.

If the only way a singular voice can be kept is if the director writes/rewrites the script where, then, does that leave a. directors who can’t write (should they just write shoddy scripts and shoot them? And b. what about writers who don’t want to direct?

That brings me to Charlie Casanova. I’m glad I watched it and I’m glad it was made. It looks fantastic and is a credit to its production designer and cinematographer. It raises great questions about class and about what the ruling class in the last administration were allowed to get away with – what they’re still getting away with.

I just wish Terry McMahon had let someone take a red pen to a script that was indulgent and wearyingly up its own arse (or up its own vagina in the case of the scene where Leigh Arnold inserts a tampon in front of Charlie). This is a film that is so “incendiary”, it thinks there’s something shocking about an act that half the population do many times a day for a whole week out of every month. Are tampons now sexy? Will Ireland now be full of panting men in front of bathroom doors, whispering “Show me the Tampax, baby!” Will Terry’s next film show a smear exam? My tongue is leaving my cheek now.

Apparently, CC is a “Protest film” and “the protest film is not conceived for the market. They are emotionally reactive, born out of necessity and a political and social consciousness”. 

I don’t know – and I haven’t been able to find out – whether Charlie made any money, whether it made a profit or whether it even broke even? No one got paid, and I assume Terry put a fair bit of moolah in himself. Either way, should films not be conceived – at least to some extent – “for the market?”

I’m thinking of an Irish person at home on Saturday night, who wants to go and see a film. First of all, he or she is likely to dismiss an Irish film as an option – even if there is one available to watch in their local cinema. Let’s be honest about this. Irish people tend to think Irish films are shit

And why is this? There are a lot of possible reasons – lack of proper distribution, poor development processes, lack of money, but I think the biggest problem is that the films are not, as a general rule, entertaining. I think the average person, who’s had a hard week at work and just wants to be gripped/made cry or made laugh for two hours, is not going to pay to see what may well be what a friend of mine likes to call a “tap-dripper”.

In case you think I’m saying that all films need to be Michael Bay-like (perish the thought), Mississippi Burning is a highly entertaining film as well as being powerful and informative. So is Medium Cool. So is an excellent Palestinian film called Amreeka. I remember watching the TV documentary drama “Who Bombed Birmingham” when I was very young and it’s stayed with me, scene by scene, ever since. It was so well written and well presented that it took me by the throat when I saw it.

But film is a medium that is designed for people to watch, preferably en masse, in a darkened cinema. I believe – and this is my manifesto if you like – that we need to think about the end user. The guy or girl paying for a ticket to watch something that we have created. We owe it to the audience to come up with something great, something that will leave them wondering, or laughing, or crying. And yes, thinking.

I watched two trailers for Irish movies today that (hopefully) will do those things. Two very different films, too – Citadel and Grabbers. I’m willing to bet that both of them will make money AND leave the audiences feeling like they got their monies worth.

I agree wholeheartedly with Mark on this last point – and I’d like to thank him for writing a manifesto that will encourage debate and hopefully lead to some great films being made. Because we think we can agree that we all want that.

“We need to build our indigenous film industry by making it about ourselves instead of trying to replicate the foreign model. For this movement to reach its full potential we need to promote Irish cinema as an important part of our culture and bring this new wave more into the mindset of Irish audiences. We need better models for the distribution of Irish film and we need our television stations to show more support for the industry. We should not be looking to work within a hierarchy but in a collaborative environment”  

Eilis Mernagh

http://dublintohollywood.com/

You can read Mark’s original Sounding Off article The New Wave, The Fís And The Rage here

If you would like to respond to this article or feel strongly about something and would like to kick off your own topic, please email steven@filmbase.ie

Share

Interview: Irish Women in Film Series – Eilis Mernagh

 

In the start of a new series Caroline Farrell interviews a selection of Irish Women in Film, beginning with Eilis Mernagh.

The first lady to be featured in this series is prolific screenwriter and producer, Eilis Mernagh. Eilis is the writer and co-producer of Tiger [2012], a short thriller directed by Cathal Nally.  She also produced the short film, Prodigal Son [2010], written and directed by Colin Scuffins. Her short film, Regards to the Chef [2009], directed by Kian and Ewen Pettit, was featured in the Darklight feature production, Hotel Darklight. All I Want for Christmas, a feature script, has been optioned to a TV Production Company in the U.S, and Eilis was also an Altantis Award recipient at the Moondance Film Festival, 2011.

So Eilis, how and why did you get started in the business? 

I’ve always written stuff but for some reason never screenplays. Then I did this two-day course with Laurence Henson at the IFI (Irish Film Institute) back in 2007 and got completely hooked. It’s been a happy obsession/major hobby-turned new career ever since.

Did you have any formal instruction (film school, etc.) or are you self-taught?

Self-taught – I read other screenplays, go to seminars and talks and try and write as much as possible.

What have been your seminal influences?

Loads of things – I grew up spending a lot of time with my mom’s parents and my granddad was obsessed with Westerns and old gangster movies, so I must have seen hundreds of them. His favourite comedian was Bob Hope and my script The Heartstoppers was really a modern-day, (less racist!) version of Hope’s comedy The Ghostbreakers. Then my aunt who used to have to babysit me would take a load of kids to Eighties films like E.T., The Goonies, Short Circuit, etc. etc. I’ve probably watched two films a week since I was a kid. I’m a film whore – I find I learn as much from watching bad movies as I do from the good ones. I like a good story, well told, with great characters in most genres but I prefer comedies, adventure films and thrillers.

Who are your current favourites / influences?

I like the fact that female comedy is really getting somewhere – finally. I hope we look back on Bridesmaids and see it as the start of a new wave of comedy rather than the high point of a phase. Joss Whedon is a genius – would give my right arm to work with him – as is J.J. Abrams. After seeing Winter’s Bone, I’d love to work with Debra Granik.

Okay, so you’re having a fantasy dinner party!  Living or dead, name six people you would love to have around that fantasy dinner table?

Jack Lemmon (to see if he was as awesome in person), Kathryn Bigelow (another lady I’d love to write a script for), Joe Ezsterhas (for the crazy), Maureen O’Hara (for the Hollywood stories ), Garson Kanin (even more Hollywood gossip) and Ian Fleming (for the spy stories).

What is your opinion of the current Irish film scene?

I think it’s unfortunate that there is no money. Not that there ever has been any, but I think what’s badly needed are some real huckster producers, people who can raise money somehow, by whatever means, so we can make some bloody films. I’m thinking of someone like Lloyd Kaufman or Roger Corman, real characters who make things happen. The producers we have tend to be nice, well-meaning middle-class people who have two ways of raising money: the Film Board and European co-productions. What about thinking a bit more creatively on this? Once the money’s there, we need to ask ourselves the question: what do people want to watch? Not ‘how am I going to show the depths of despair of the Irish psyche’, but what do people want to see on Saturday night at the cinema? And once we’ve all been honest about this (let’s face it, the answer is, they want entertaining films that have great stories and compelling characters), we need to write those scripts. If it’s a question of budget limitations, look at Attack the Block. Great film, great characters, very little money spent.

Highlight of your career so far?

Winning a screenplay award at the 2011 Moondance Film Award.

What would be your ultimate career goal?

Winning an Oscar® – I want one of those little gold men for the mantelpiece.

Thanks Eilis… any final comment you would like to add?

Yes – there’s loads of talent out there, everyone just needs to believe in themselves, ignore the staggering amount of negativity, and keep truckin’…

 

You can check in with Eilis through her blog: http://dublintohollywood.com/

Caroline Farrell is an author and screenwriter:
 
Check Caroline’s Time Standing Still, her collection of short stories at: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/46613
Follow Caroline on twitter https://twitter.com/CarolineAuthor

 

 

Share

'Prodigal Son'

Prodigal Son


Urban Western Prodigal Son has just wrapped after a four-day shoot in Dublin city. Its cast includes actor Ryan Andrews (The Pool, The Clinic, Fair City), Padraig Murray (The Guards, The Clinic) and US TV actor Mark Schrier (‘Murder’, Sex and the City). Written and directed by playwright CJ Scuffins, Prodigal Son is his debut film.

Prodigal Son tells the story of gangster’s son Joe, who is brought back from the dead by mysterious corporation Prodigal Inc after an untimely death. But Joe’s mother Eileen instantly recognizes that her son is no longer himself. Once a brutal enforcer, he’s now a lost boy, afraid of his own shadow. While Joe’s father Denny forces his son to face off against psychotic teenage assassin The Boy, Eileen plots an even more sinister solution.

Prodigal Son was shot over four days (8–11 April 2010) in Finglas, Smithfield, St Stephen’s Green and Grand Canal Dock.

The film was produced by Hotel Darklight writer Eilis Mernagh and shot by award-winning cinematographer Piers McGrail (The Silver Bow, You’re Only What I See Sometimes).

Currently in post-production, Prodigal Son will be ready for festivals, both in Ireland and elsewhere, in May 2010.

Share