From the Archive: Dublin’s Fair City

Haywire-Dublin-Roofs

Niamh Creely talks to Irish location manager Peter Conway about shooting in Dublin and learns how challenging a location manager’s job can be.

The original article originally appeared in Film Ireland magazine, Issue 141, 2012.

 

Ireland is world-renowned for its stunning landscapes, many of which have been immortalised in film over the years. But the streets of Dublin have also been brought to the big screen numerous times and rightly so. Dublin’s unique charm has been mapped out in film, from Grafton Street with the Oscar®-winning Once, to O’Connell street with Lance Daly’s Kisses, to Temple Bar for the Bollywood musical Ek Tha Tiger and to Dalkey for Kirsten Sheridan’s latest, Dollhouse. But what’s it actually like to coordinate a shoot in Dublin? I spoke to location manager Peter Conway about his recent work on Haywire, starring Gina Carano and Albert Nobbs, starring Glenn Close.

 

Anyone familiar with Dublin city centre got an extra bonus watching Haywire. You’re used to seeing chase sequences in anonymous American cities, but this time you get to see Gina Carano freerun across Dublin rooftops in what looks like a geographically accurate manner. I’m guessing this was not a cinch, logistically speaking?

 

Yes. I have to admit from the outset, I was somewhat surprised at the nature of the project. They described it as The Bourne Identity with a female lead, so I thought it was quite interesting to come to Dublin to shoot it. When Steven Soderbergh arrived one of the first things that we learned is that he didn’t like to cheat anything. When we’re filming, usually there’s some element of cheating, maybe the interior is somewhere and the exterior is somewhere else. But we found out pretty quickly that was something he didn’t like doing. So you are right. When you see the movie, it all makes geographical sense. For example, there was a scene where she runs to a hotel. And naturally enough from a logistical point of view and from a production point of view we would see if we could find perhaps an empty space or something that we could adapt as a hotel. But no, he wanted to shoot for real. We ended up shooting in Wynn’s Hotel on Abbey Street and the Shelbourne Hotel in the lobby area, which is no mean feat in one of the busiest hotels in Dublin.

 

So it was all shot on location then?

 

Yes. Everything else that you see inside the Shelbourne, that was all shot in the hotel itself. Though for obvious reasons, because the fight scene in the room was so detailed and choreographed, that was an exact copy of the room, built in Ardmore Studios. But of course the rooftop chase sequence was the most complicated thing to put together. It all happens very quickly when you see it but that actually took months to figure out. We decided that she darts into Wynn’s Hotel and once we found a way from Wynn’s Hotel up onto their roof, then between the stunt co-ordinator and the production designer and Steven Soderbergh, we figured out a logical route that she might take as she is being pursued. But then our job after that was quite difficult. We had to go and approach each individual building to get on to the roof, which, trust me, can be quite difficult. We had many, many roofs and on each roof there were different requirements. We employed a structural engineer to assess the weight-bearing capacity of each roof and that it could take the weight of 60 people and various different pieces of equipment. We had another engineer employed also to photograph and then trial every roof for any damage that might have been there before we shot, so in the event of any litigation afterwards, we were covered. By the time we got to shoot the rooftop chase sequence, which took two-and-a-half days to shoot, we had had months and months of preparation to actually get to that point.

 

And then of course, there’s Russborough House in Wicklow as well.

 

Yes. In the initial recces, that location wasn’t a requirement. They just said, ‘Are there any period homes in Ireland?’ I was like, ‘Of course there are. There are lots.’  So we brought them to see a couple and pretty quickly Steven Soderbergh decided Russborough was the one for him.

 

And then with Albert Nobbs, you were faced with a completely different kind of challenge – recreating late 19th century Dublin. Location scouting started back in 2001, but you were involved from a later stage, right?

 

Yes. In 2001, Glenn Close and production designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein came to Ireland and scouted locations. Cabinteely House they immediately identified as a good location for all the interior hotel scenes. Ten years later they came back, which is when I got involved. But you’re right. To shoot 1890s Dublin in 2010 Dublin was an incredible challenge. Because although we have a lot of period streets, when you actually start trying to figure out how to shoot something like Albert Nobbs in a modern city, it’s difficult. I mean, obviously, Dublin is a fantastic Georgian city. But when you break down the script and you realise you need six or seven different streetscapes, you suddenly run out of them pretty quick. We ended up shooting on Bath Street in Ringsend, which had a couple of period buildings and a laneway that the art department then dressed. Then we restaged a number of scenes into Glasnevin Cemetery, which is a wonderful period cemetery and we shot Grafton Street in the courtyard in Dublin Castle. And we shot another street scene in the Iveagh Gardens in the centre of Dublin, so those were all beautiful period locations that we used instead of shooting on real streets.

 

Well I think the two films really show the range of locations in Dublin.

 

Yes, the level of international film in Ireland has gone up in recent years I think.  People are now aware of what Ireland has to offer in terms of urban locations in period Dublin and other cities around Ireland. And the outstanding countryside is also a huge draw for production. I was involved in Astérix and Obélix that shot last year in Ireland. A huge part of that was shot down in the Burren in County Clare, a very unique landscape. But to go back to Albert Nobbs and Haywire, filming in a busy modern city has huge difficulties when you are moving a large production around. So the Irish Film Board are a massive help in anything of that nature. And the Film Dublin Partnership is a fantastic asset that enables us to access the fire department and the police department and so on. It’s made doing a large production in a downtown location much easier in recent years.

 

The Film Dublin Partnership?

 

It was set up through the Irish Film Board. For large productions, if you’re shooting downtown and you need to close a street, the Film Board will set up a meeting basically with all of Film Dublin Partnership’s members. So if you need to contact Dublin Bus or An Garda Síochána or if you need traffic control or street closures, it’s an opportunity for a location manager like myself to go in and speak to all of them in one meeting. The Film Dublin Partnership works fantastically, particularly for large high-impact productions like Haywire and Albert Nobbs, where you really need the city to kind of come on board.

 

So how did you get into location managing?

 

I’m from County Waterford. So when a Channel 4 TV production shot in County Waterford, I went up and got a summer job. It was a real eye-opener. I had no idea of the skill and equipment and preparation that actually went into a shoot. So then I moved to Dublin and worked on the next production and the next production.

 

And you were just kind of drawn to the locations side of things then.

 

It’s a very varied job. The nice thing about being a location manager is that we deal with pretty much most of the crew. From the very outset, we get the script and you spend time with the director and production designer. As the locations start to fall into place you then begin to get into the nuts and bolts of the shoot. You know, now we have picked where we are going to shoot, how will we actually do it? How do we actually light a particular street or building or how do we actually shoot a car stunt scene? You might need to close the street, for example. And then we would deal with the authorities – a city council or a town council, or if you’re shooting in the street, you’re dealing with the residents committees or the residents. And with a large production you’ll have what we call a unit base. It’s like a village, with catering and hair and make-up and wardrobe and crew car parking. It’s like moving a small circus around a city or around the country. We have to deal with everything, down to when we’re finished filming and we have to start putting everything back. We might have to repaint a house, for example. It’s quite a process. We end up dealing with so many people on so many different levels, it can be very satisfying.

 

And what do you think of the rise in CGI – do you think that will change the film industry’s need for locations?

 

Well, to be honest it hasn’t really detracted a whole lot from what we do. We’re still extraordinarily busy and CGI is actually a great help. I remember doing some period stuff in the late ’90s in Dublin and we had to remove telephone wires and satellite dishes and so on, which is incredibly difficult. Getting permission to remove someone’s satellite dish for a couple of days or to bury telephone lines underground – it’s very expensive and time-consuming. So the advent of CGI has eliminated a lot of that. I was involved in Neverland last year, which was the Peter Pan thing for Sky. And a lot of that was CGI. That was on a different level. They were literally creating locations from scratch and it was interesting to see. Perhaps, you know, in ten years there won’t be a need for location managers. But that, I think, remains to be seen.

 

For more information about filming in Dublin or the rest of Ireland, email the Irish Film Board at locations@irishfilmboard.ie or visit www.irishfilmboard.ie/filming_in_ireland/

 

 

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From the Archive: Bringing Hollywood Here

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Behind many of the big-budget productions that have recently graced our shores is Ned Dowd, a producer who has had a truly diverse career. Paul Farren learns how he went from professional ice hockey player to executive producer on King Arthur.

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland magazine, Issue 99, 2004

Ever since the Kalem Film Company first set up its gear in Killarney, Ireland has managed to lure Hollywood productions to its shores on regular basis. The most recent (and biggest) of these is of course King Arthur, a film that provided a lot of gossip as well as employment last year. One of the people we can thank for this is executive producer Ned Dowd, who is the man behind four of the recent big-budget productions to shoot here: The Count of Monte Cristo, Reign of Fire, Veronica Guerin and, of course, King Arthur.

I’ve been asked to interview him about his involvement with the Tiernan McBride International Screenwriting Award, and I do – eventually – but the man’s career path is a distraction, and impressive to the point of incurring seething jealousy. He has rubbed shoulders with a long list of talented people, as you will see, but he also played Ogie Ogilthorpe in one of my favourite sport movies, Slap Shot. So what is the first step on the road to being a successful Hollywood producer? Professional ice hockey, it would seem.

‘I was a professional hockey player; I came out of college, played for the St Louis Blues and a lot of minor league teams. I think I was in my third year of playing I was in Pittsburgh. My sister Nancy is a professional screenwriter; she got an Academy award for Coming Home’, he says in an off the cuff manner. ‘She was going out with a Canadian actor at the time – Donald Sutherland. He was a hockey fan, so she said “my brother is in some league, somewhere”.’ One visit to little brother’s league was enough for Dowd’s sister; she was inspired by the lunacy: ‘if there weren’t about seven or eight fights a night the fans would go away disappointed’. She gave him a dictaphone. ‘She said carry this around for a while. So I got an idea; I recorded stuff for a season, sent off some tapes, didn’t think anything of it. The next year I got a phone call. She said: “You’re not going to believe this, but I wrote this script and my agent got it to a big well-known director – George Roy Hill”. I didn’t know who George Roy Hill was, he had just done The Sting  and Butch Cassidy’. One trip to la later, and Dowd found himself working on Slap Shot. ‘I worked in terms of the Hockey players and it was a great experience. It was four or five months; I taught Paul Newman how to skate, did the whole thing. I worked as the stunt coordinator too, and I brought in all the goons who I had played with in professional hockey.’ A sad footnote to that story (for me), was a sequel with the original characters missed the goal. ‘It would have been brilliant seeing these guys thirty years later, but Universal said “no we’ve given it to the video division”.’ He is pragmatic about the affair. ‘The important thing is that it’s really held up well after all these years.’

After the movie Dowd returned briefly to ice hockey but soon realised a career in that direction was not forthcoming. But the filmmaking bug had hit, so he headed to LA to start from the beginning again. ‘It was a bit of a fall, because on Slap Shot I had been doing three jobs: production assistant, technical advisor, stunt co-ordinator and I had a part in the movie’. A stint as a production assistant with abc led him to a meeting with Robert Altman. ‘He sort of took me under his wing, and that was a really lucky move for me.’ Dowd certainly has had his fair share of luck, but hard graft has also played an important part in his evolution. ‘I got to work on features with an eye to being an assistant director, and during those years I did anything I could to get my director’s card. I was an AD on thirty to forty movies. I really enjoyed it because I got to work with some really great directors.’

In 1988 Dowd moved into production while continuing to work as an AD. ‘I was very lucky in those years to hook up with a guy in New York – Michael Hausman – he was Milos Forman’s producer. We came up with an idea. I always had an affinity for Ireland; my grandparents came from Kerry and I spent a summer here in college. So we wanted to do the Godfather of Ireland, you know. I read an article about the Westies, a gang in Hell’s Kitchen; a true story about how they tried to take on the mafia, and we came up with the idea for State of Grace. I produced the picture in New York, and it was directed by Phil Joanu. It was first time out of the gate, it was the first movie I tried to get off the ground and I didn’t know what I was doing.’ The final result shows that he probably did, State of Grace is an arresting film, which features superb performances from Gary Oldman, Sean Penn and Ed Harris.

Dowd continued to work as a ‘gun for hire’ in his role as a line producer. ‘I had this sort of weird journey in terms of producing. You have nine different production credits on a movie – that guy didn’t do anything, and that guy didn’t do anything, that guy’s the writer, he got a producer credit. But I like to think that I’m guy who knows how to make the movies’. He says this passionately but modestly; two qualities that resonate through his conversation. Though box office earnings are important to him it is the creative aspect that seems to thrill him the most.

‘I did Wonder Boys with Curtis Hanson, an auteur in every sense. We sat down and talked about the movie in its every facet, and from that we worked together towards making the picture. For me, if that happens I’ll go work twenty-four hours a day. That to me was the most rewarding experience, because we pulled it off. The picture didn’t perform well, but critically it was well received and it was a good movie’.

While working as line producer on The Count of Monte Cristo, more good fortune arrived in the form of Morgan O’Sullivan. Through his company World 2000 he has been responsible for enticing big budget productions to Ireland for many years. ‘I talked to Morgan, who is a very good emissary for filmmaking in this country, by the way. Then I came over and looked at some locations. It worked for a lot of reasons to make the movie in Ireland, including the tax breaks and all that; it also worked because the locations were stunning.’ So stunning that Dowd has lived here ever since. ‘While we were running with that we got the go ahead on another script, which was Reign of Fire, and I thought “English countryside in the future; castle – lets do that here as well, I’ve got a good relationship here”. I sold them on that. We couldn’t find anyone to produce the movie because it was difficult and ridiculous; the script has dragons eating subways and all this stuff. So I decided to take a break from the production job at Spyglass and produce that movie – despite foot and mouth and all that; we had a lot of hassles. Again, the film didn’t perform 100% as it should have, but it was a good effort from a production standpoint.’ Following that was the Jerry Bruckheimer production Veronica Guerin, directed by Joel Schumacher. ‘I was lucky enough to get on that with Joel and it was great. Like getting back to the Curtis Hanson thing, Joel is such an auteur. We hit it off – he’s great – he was a great partner. Then Jerry Bruckheimer brought King Arthur here, which kind of gets us to where we are now.’ So it does. At the time of this interview King Arthur was in the hands of special effects people in England, and all was quiet in Ireland’s fair film industry regarding big-budget productions, the kind that our Irish crews have become reliant on over recent years. King Arthur could be the last of them for some time.

But what does Dowd think the factors are that have led to this decline? The rate of the dollar and competition from other countries is losing Ireland business, and it would seem Section 481 is not enough to reduce this loss. I ask him if he thinks the recent fear that 481 might be abolished had a negative effect. ‘It was harmful only in the fact that it sent the wrong message out ahead, saying the tax credit’s going away. I think we stopped the bleeding by saying that it’s here now, in fact it’s even better. But it’s just level crunching now, if you take in the cost of inflation when you were changing over your currency. It wasn’t a currency change over, it was “we’ve got a chance to jack the price up a little bit”, and it happened a lot in areas where we as a film industry were affected, including hotels and restaurants. So it made all that more expensive’. Dowd remains hopeful: ‘It’ll come back, you know’.

Does he feel anything can be done at government level to help the current situation? ‘You need someone farsighted enough to understand that there is a benefit; there’s a hidden benefit as well, but unfortunately times are tough now. The movie industry is perceived to be something run by wealthy people, and that’s just not the case. I mean, the rank and file of this country number over six thousand people who make their business directly from the film industry, and it’s a big blow.’ Another benefit to foreign productions seeking to shoot here is the training previous films have provided. ‘People who worked as assistants on Count of Monte Cristo; over the course of those four movies are now head of departments, and have the skill to do it and have been exposed to a broad range of expertise that’s come from all over the world to make these movies.’

Speaking of skills, it’s time to talk about the Tiernan McBride International Screenwriting Award; Dowd was the chair of this year’s panel. What was his impression of the material received? ‘I think that, for such a small country, the quality of material in just the last round was very high. This year we had almost double the submissions from last year, so the word is getting out that it’s a worthy project.’ So is he scanning the entries with a producer’s eye? ‘This year there wasn’t anything that tickled my fancy, but as an ulterior motive sure. Whenever you read a script you always say, “is this something I could make?”’ So, has he plans to produce more films this side of the water? ‘Yeah, totally. What we’re trying to do in this down-time is to get back to pet projects after the epics. I’ve got things I’m interested in; my approach is that if there’s a certain drama I’m interested in I take it from there and develop a story. I’m looking to develop projects so I can go to somebody and bring financing to it. All you’ve got to do is find an American distributor. If you make a movie for five-to-ten million, you can raise the money fairly easily from the production end based on getting an American distributor. He makes it all sound so easy, but then he has earned a position that has its advantages. ‘My relationship with Hollywood in terms of those people is good, so I can actually get that. I think, on a much smaller level, those smaller movies are infinitely more rewarding, and you can hit a home run with a movie like that. When you succeed with a picture like that it’s great for everybody’. After an hour in this man’s company something tells me he just might hit that home run.

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From the Archive: Lens Flair – an interview with Director of Photography PJ Dillon

 

 

 

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pic: molodist.com

PJ Dillon is one of Ireland’s most respected cinematographers. His long list of impressive credits includes his work on Vikings, Ripper Street, My Brothers, Kings, The Runway, Rewind – his directorial debut and Earthbound, Alan Brennan’s Irish sci-fi comedy, which opened in Irish cinemas earlier this year. Dillon has just been nominated for Best Cinematography in Television Drama by the British Society of Cinematographers. Steven Galvin caught up with PJ Dillon to discuss his craft and his work on Earthbound.

 

 

Can you tell us a little about your introduction to the film business?

 

I graduated from DIT in 1989. I’m from Listowel in Kerry and fortuitously at that time Jim Sheridan was making The Field. John B Keane was my neighbour and he knew what I was studying in college and trying to get a break into the film industry. He came over to me one evening and told me about The Field and said, ‘Do you want me to see if I can get you a job?’ Of course! So he took me to meet Jim Sheridan on a recce and I got a job as a trainee clapper-loader on the second unit.

 

It was always my intention to be a cinematographer – when we were making films in college I always gravitated towards being a cameraman and that side of things. After college I tried all the usual routes and getting onto sets pestering cameramen and production managers but had no success at all, but there weren’t actually that many films being made at the time – maybe two or three a year at that time. The other way into the business was to work on commercials. But at that time it was inconceivable that you would come out of college and start working as a cameraman. Back then you had to go through the hierarchy of starting as a trainee clapper loader, becoming a clapper loader; then a focus puller and a camera operator and then after you’d gone through all the levels eventually a cinematographer.

 

Which I presume is a great learning curve?

 

Yes – a fantastic learning curve. Even today it stands to me. It gives you a real appreciation of the difficulty in other people’s jobs. And standing on set seeing other people solve problems is a great way to learn how to solve problems! And of course there’re times when you’re looking at people working and you say, ‘Well I’m never going to do it like that!’ It can work both ways.

 

Which also feeds into an understanding of the collective nature of filmmaking itself.

 

Absolutely. And it is completely a collective, collaborative effort. It is one industry where if you isolate yourself you won’t do very well. Your work will be better the more inclusive you are in the film industry.

 

What was it that attracted you to cinematography in particular?

 

Probably like everyone else I went into college thinking I wanted to be a director. While there, I got my first experience of actually working with film cameras, shooting film, and the whole process of actually exposing film, watching it in a screening room was completely magical to me. And I thought ‘this is it for me. I’m not going to find anything better than this.’

 

So the technical, practical side fascinated you?

 

Well, yes – and it was being able to use the technical practical tools in an aesthetic way. I remember we’d shoot our own college films on 16mm and of course we’d be delighted we made this but then I’d go to see films in the cinema of artists at the top of their game and I’d be thinking ‘how did they make it look like that?’ And as you get better and start to achieve that, there’s a real thrill and something deeply satisfying about it.

 

And I presume that would still be a part of the way you work as a cinematographer – figuring out how you achieve a certain look, like a puzzle. There’s a script there, there’s an idea there, and you have to work out how to get what you and a director want.

 

Absolutely. For me, references play a huge part in any discussion I have with a director. Once I read a script and get a feel for what it’s about, the next step is to talk to the director and what can they compare it to and what are their references. The references might not necessarily be films; they may be photographs or paintings – it can be quite abstract. But they’re about tone and mood and emotion and all of those things that go into getting what you want.  It’s not that you’re not trying to copy something else but more about the feel of it. So yes, looking at other people’s work and asking how they achieved that.

 

You’ve recently worked on Ripper Street and Game of Thrones. How does working for television differ from film?

 

There are differences. With Game of Thrones the budget is 7 or 8 million an episode and, funnily enough, you probably have more money and more time than you would shooting a low-budget feature. But generally shooting a film is quite different in that you do have more time. I think TV is very much story-orientated; it’s about getting into scenes quickly and getting out quickly. Being very efficient. With films you tend to have the freedom to linger a little more. There’s more breathing space.

 

Ripper Street and Game of Thrones – they’re very stylized and there’s obviously a certain look that has to be adhered to. How does that work across a series with different DOPs?

 

It depends. With Game of Thrones the first DOP to shoot on it the year I worked on it was Kramer Morgenthau. And he was incredibly helpful to me, telling me what he was doing and involving me in his testing period. He wanted me to be able to continue the look that he was developing. That was particularly rewarding. But I’ve also worked on TV shows where there’s been no communication between DOPs. That can happen, sometimes, for budget or scheduling reasons. And sometimes it could be a different director with a different vision or the producers might want you to disregard what’s come before.

 

Moving on to Earthbound. How did you originally get involved?

 

Alan [Brennan, director] and Heidi [Madsen, producer] rang me out of the blue. They handed me a script. I read it. I thought it was really funny and quirky. I met the two of them, liked them and agreed to do it.

 

And working with Alan?

 

It was Alan’s first feature so it was quite daunting for him, but he met it brilliantly. I thought he was inventive and temperamentally just great. Alan has great quirky ideas and he did a great job executing them, particularly working with a limited budget and schedule – it was a 4-week shoot. Alan had a clear idea what he wanted and the kind of films he liked. In this case there were a lot of comic book references we discussed to capture the mood of the film. It was great fun to do.

 

Can you tell us a bit about the format you used?

 

We shot anamorphic. We were shooting on RED with anamorphic lenses for widescreen. And that was for two reasons really – Alan wanted to get that ’70s American sci-fi feel. Also anamorphic is used in a lot of major action movies. It’s got a very particular look – that widescreen look. What anamorphic lenses do is they squeeze the image, which is then unsqueezed again when you project. They have some very particular characteristics which viewers might not be aware of but subliminally the anamorphic lenses are working in a particular way that give you that epic widescreen Hollywood look.

 

The other thing about them is that they have a characteristic where they flare in a different way to standard lenses – that blue flare you get when for example headlights are on screen – that’s a classic artifact of anamorphic lenses. That’s what Alan was looking for.

 

Obviously, there’s much debate at the minute about the digital revolution in filmmaking. What’s your own preference – shooting on film or digital?

 

If I’m to be brutally honest, my preference would be to shoot on film, though the choice very much depends on the specific project and I’m quite happy shooting on digital formats. Certainly there’s greater immediacy with digital – you’re now shooting on high-definition formats and viewing on hi-def monitors on screen. Pretty much what you see is what you get – though obviously there’s a certain amount of grading that goes on afterwards and so on – but that was not the case on film. On film what you were looking at was a video tap – the on-board monitor. You weren’t looking at the end product. That immediacy appeals to directors and producers because they really know what they’re getting.

 

As good as the Arri Alexa is, which would be my personal favourite of all the digital formats, I still don’t think they have the subtlety that film can achieve. However that gap has closed radically even in the last three or four years.

 

You used the Arri Alexa on Ripper and Game of Thrones.  What is it about it that you prefer?

 

I think it has a greater dynamic range and the camera themselves feel more film intuitive. If you’ve come from a film background, the Alexa just feels more like a film camera.

 

Do you have any particular advice for someone looking to get started in the business?

 

Persevere. It’s funny; some people have it as a life ambition while others just seem to fall into it by accident. But what I would say to people who want to be DOPs is ‘shoot’ – just go out and shoot. If no one’s asking you to shoot for them, generate stuff yourself. The technology is really affordable now. When I started you couldn’t just go out and shoot because a roll of film cost 100 pounds and you’d have to rent a 16mm camera and you’d have to process it. To shoot something was an expensive thing to do. That’s not the case anymore. Anyone who’s serious can get the money together, get their hands on a decent inexpensive camera and start learning to shoot! Shoot as much as you can. That’s one of the reason Filmbase was founded – to make filmmaking accessible and that is even more so the case now. Technology is getting cheaper all the time. And getting better.

 

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland magazine, Issue 143, 2013

 

 

 

 

 

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From the Archive: From the Biscuit Tin to the Big Screen

Horgan Collection - Cork v CMYK

Once home movies and now national treasures, Tony Tracy takes us through some vintage homemade cinema from the Irish Film Archive.

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 135, 2010

Considered until recently amongst the most personal and ephemeral forms of moving picture production, home movies are experiencing a burst of institutional recognition and appreciation as artefacts of wider cultural value. Festivals celebrating ‘orphan films’ in the late 1990s began this rediscovery followed by the tentative reflections of film archivists – largely descriptive – on home movie materials found in their collections. A similarly inspired, though more academic, joint project between the IFA Irish Film Archive (IFA) and University College Cork –Capturing the Nation – gave rise to the recent Home Movie Heritage Day at the IFI as part of Heritage Week 2010.

A selection of the IFA’s holdings were screened from five collections (material from a single donor or source), each prefaced by an introduction from a person related to either the shooting or preservation of the collection before it was lodged with the archive; what might be termed its ‘biscuit tin’ phase.

Actuality film


The Horgan Collection (1910–1920) must count amongst the nation’s cultural treasures. Actuality film is a non-fiction film genre that uses footage of real events yet is not structured into a larger argument like a documentary. Contemporaries of the Lumière brothers, John and Edward Horgan’s earliest images resemble the iconic actualities of the French pioneers of moving pictures. Made in their native Youghal, Co. Cork, their early films are local actualities comparable to canonical films like Train Arriving (L’arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat) and Workers Leaving the Factory (La sortie des usines Lumière). Like those films, they are not technically ‘home movies’ but small gauge films made for paying audiences, usually screened as part of a variety show. Clearly inspired by the Lumière’s examples they share formal similarities in their static framing of crowds moving frenetically around the camera like the unaware specimens of scientific observation, save for the occasional young boy who has spotted the camera and feels compelled to interrupt the illusion of invisible observers.

One early film is notable for the variety of headgear worn by the crowds, a lost fashion custom that provides a useful index of social class and function. We see men in top hats and neat formal suits, in sailor’s caps and garb, humble caps and women in broad hats and shawls. It is a fascinating window on a disappeared world. If the future direction of cinema, as has sometimes been suggested, was a duel between the literal tendencies of the Lumières and the dreamlike impulses of their neighbour and competitor Georges Méliès then the Horgan brothers sought to include both. Also screened was a tantalizingly short extract of a film that animated the clock tower in Cobh and moved it around the main street in the style of a Méliès trick film.

The films of the Egan family (the selection dated from 1937–1943) are precisely what the term ‘home movies’ summons up. In her touching and affectionate introduction Valerie McCarthy spoke of her father as ‘a wonderful man’ and his pride and love for his home and family is palpable in the films he left them. They depict an idyllic middle class family life of happy children in happy surroundings; there is wonderful colour footage, for instance, of a young girl chasing geese in a farmyard that evokes the imperishable innocence of childhood innocence as well as the gaze of a doting father.

The gaze was not all male, however. The films of Margaret Currivan included footage of her daughter Helen’s communion in the 1960s. As with all her films screened, there was a cinematic sensibility at work that went beyond mere ‘recording’. The short film intercut images of the Holy Communion event with more abstract footage shot separately to communicate the mystery and iconography of the sacrament. Here was a fascinating attempt to not only document the externalities of this right of passage but to interweave an interpretative framework of reference that, in hindsight, tells us much about Catholic spirituality of the period.

Catholic viewpoint

This was not the only footage interpolated by a Catholic viewpoint. Irene Devitt deposited the film collection of her late uncle Fr Jack Delaney with the archive in the 1990s. In introducing extracts she recalled childhood holidays where she and her sister travelled from the Navan Road (where they lived) across the city to his house in Dun Laoghaire.

Fr Delaney’s footage was perhaps the most poignant of the afternoon and an explanation of why this is would require a social history of modern Ireland. Along with footage of his family, Fr Delaney had a notable interest in filming the marginal figures of Irish society – the impoverished ‘working classes’ walking through streets and inner city laneways, poor children playing amongst city rubble, a Corpus Christi parade utterly unimaginable today and an ‘open day’ for the girls of the notorious Magdalene laundry – in this instance the ‘Gloucester Diamond’ laundry on Dublin’s Sean Mac Dermott Street, which Irene recalled being brought along to as a young girl. The unique status of this last footage has led to it being used frequently by chroniclers of the dark history of institutional abuse: States of Fear, Sex in a Cold Climate and elsewhere. The images here are haunting because of what we now know; not so much for what they show as what they conceal. A slow panning shot across the happy faces of these young women gives them a humanity no amount of reports will, and complicates our response as only the photographic image can. Who are they? What ‘sins’ did they commit? Their happiness is troubling because we distrust its status and consequently become retrospectively implicated in their incarceration.

Formally, Fr Delaney’s footage seems rather conventional with a preference for assembling a line of people and having them march towards the camera. But this repeated choreographing has an unexpected resonance as the gaze of successive groups who have been beyond the boundaries of ‘official’ history – written and visual – confront the gaze of the modern viewer. This is especially true of the ‘Magdalene sisters’ but it is also true of Dublin’s poor, revealed in a shockingly fresh and intimate manner that recalls Roberto Rossellini’s groundbreaking post-war films Rome, Open City and Germany Year Zero. Given that this footage was made in the 1950s one wonders if Fr Delaney saw those films. These images of Ireland’s ‘ordinary people’ make one long for what might have been – a neo-realist inspired Irish cinema movement in the ’40s, ’50s or ’60s that drew on Rossellini’s Christian humanism. A real sense of solidarity and shared humanity emanates from Fr Delaney’s moving pictures, a welcome contrast to the increasingly common consensus of the Catholic Church as devoid of empathy and interest in the poor.

Flying saucers

Reflecting a more privileged social background, Mark Leslie introduced an edited version of one of his well-known family’s cherished home movies. Them in The Thing is a sci-fi pastiche from 1955 made by his father Desmond Leslie (author of the best-selling Flying Saucers have Landed). Inspired by the contemporary craze for ufos, the Leslie film not only reflected cold war paranoia and the reach of American popular culture but offered an insight into Irish cultural diversity during the ‘hungry ’50s’. Filmed in colour around Castle Leslie in Monaghan, the film offered us a cosmopolitan corner of Ireland where, in contrast to mass emigration that dominated the daily lives of many, an imaginative and bohemian Anglo-Irish family amused themselves with genre spoof featuring family friend Sir Patrick Moore. Them in The Thing – sadly missing its pioneering electronic soundtrack – is part of the Leslie family archive of home movies which would, should they be screened more widely, complicate and enliven histories of post-war Ireland.

Apocalypse then

Michael Coyle’s films of the Vietnam conflict in 1967 stretch the terms of ‘home movies’ to encompass amateur footage of an Irishman fighting in an American war in Asia. Given such exotic provenance it was ironic to discover that this footage was perhaps the least surprising of the afternoon. Coyle’s personal story is a fascinating one and we shared his regret that so much footage he shot was lost as he scrambled to escape burning tanks. What remains seems familiar from Apocalypse Now and its descendents; a sense intensified by the use of The Doors on the soundtrack (introduced by IFA for this presentation), which had the effect of flattening the images. This was a pity because beyond such surface familiarity there is material that augments and diverges from Hollywood imagery. The footage is clearly made from within the conflict; his fellow soldiers remain undisturbed and natural as they roll through the Vietnamese jungle in tanks and armoured carriers. There are surprising shots of the young American soldiers posing with friendly Vietnamese families and truly exotic footage of an indigenous tribe – the women topless, men in loincloths, returning the baffled gaze of the passing ‘foreigners’.

In his opening remarks at the event, Ryan Tubridy described the makers of the home movies as ‘historians’. Are they? If the ‘making’ of history is the analysis and interpretation of primary sources then some of the filmmakers, by virtue of selection, point of view and editing are comparable with the traditional historian. Most, however, simply point their camera and shoot. But – as was evident from the IFA event – what they shoot is widely varied: birthday parties, communions, parades, local events, faux-narratives, foreign wars – ordinary people in ordinary and sometimes extraordinary circumstances. Perhaps what this question of meaning poses more generally is a hermeneutic or interpretive one: how are we to understand the value of home movies? Clearly this depends, in a way that art arguably doesn’t, on the questions one poses the material, on what the viewer is looking for. What is interesting and exciting about the private films screened at the ifiis that for the most part the viewers of these films were for a long time asking relatively private questions like ‘who’s that?’, where’s that?’, when’s that?’ This came across in the short but sincere and highly personal introductions to the films, which gave them both context and great personal value – rescuing them from the ‘orphan’ category. But as such material begins to seep into the public domain (as they quite literally did in the company of strangers that afternoon) the questions, and responses, become more generalized and varied and the films yield up meanings their makers may never have imagined nor intended. It takes courage to allow home movies – capsules of private memory – enter into the collective memory. But, ultimately, both the private and public spheres are enhanced by the process.

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 135, 2010

Tony Tracy is Associate Director of the Huston School of Film and Digital Media NUI Galway

 

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From the Archive: Finding the Cinematic Story in History

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Díóg O’Connell compares Rabbit Proof Fence to The Magdalene Sisters, arguing that, in order to draw due attention to historical events, filmmakers must learn to subordinate factual accuracy to the creation of the emotional structure required by good storytelling.

People or ciphers?

In his book ‘A Whore’s Profession’, David Mamet states that “people have tried for centuries to use drama to change people’s lives, to influence, to comment, to express themselves. It doesn’t work. The only thing the dramatic form is good for is telling a story.” This statement is useful as a yardstick in measuring the differences between two recent films, coincidentally emerging from opposite sides of the world at the same time, telling similar tales but in remarkably different ways. Rabbit Proof Fence and The Magdalene Sisters are parallel films in many respects. Both take an aspect of national history and explore it through the medium of film. In each case, the historical incident is shameful and embarrassing and to many unforgivable. The circumstances that facilitated these acts of inhumanity often involved the acquiescence of most of the population in Ireland and Australia. The Magdalene Sisters is not just an indictment of the church-run institutions but of the whole society. Parents actively or through facilitation allowed their daughters be incarcerated in institutions for ‘crimes’ such as flirting, having a baby outside of wed-lock or being raped. Rabbit Proof Fence deals with a colonial mindset that allowed ‘half-caste’ aboriginal children be taken from their community in order to be trained as domestic servants for the white population. Based on social-Darwinian theories of evolution, the law that facilitated this was predicated on the notion that the aboriginal race could be ‘bred’ out in three generations.

What interests us here is not so much the similarities in terms of content, but more the differences in terms of form and how that subject matter is dealt with in terms of ‘story’. It is at the level of storytelling that these films diverge. In dealing with real life historical events, the narratives constructed to tell the stories are quite distinct. The Magdalene Sisters tells an episodic tale of life in an institution in 1960’s Ireland. The film opens with one of the most memorable scenes of Irish cinema in recent years when Margaret’s story is introduced. The drama of the event is conveyed through a series of looks and a powerful soundtrack, creating early expectations of an important cinematic experience.

The film is structured around the story of three girls, Margaret, Rose and Bernadette, who were sent to a Magdalene Laundry in 1964, a tragic tale of stolen years. While the title suggests some relationship among the characters, this is never fleshed out, either as allies, friends or symbolic sisters. Instead of giving the actors complex characterization to explore, the narrative presents action sequences for the characters to play out. To borrow a term from narratology, these characters are externally focalized. Because the audience rarely glimpses their story from an internally focalized position, or from the characters’ own point of view, the story experience is kept to the surface. The audience’s encounter, therefore, of this film is to view the characters’ lives from a distance. The only possibility for connection with the characters is as cyphers that represent the social injustice and cruelty of the time. What this requires is not emotional involvement but intellectual engagement. This goes some way in explaining the acceptance that these characters bring to their situation as being anti-heroic. However, this resignation, while it may be true to life for some, is not what the dramatic structure requires for telling a story. Although Bernadette’s character is set up to rebel, the fight is half-hearted and she eventually gives in.

While it may be argued that this is the experience in such institutions and that the film is therefore more ‘truthful’, it can equally be argued that not every aborigine that was taken away from their community escaped and walked a distance of 1200 miles home. But by telling this story, Rabbit Proof Fence does justice to the historical story while getting across all the attached emotional baggage that such historical incidents inevitably arouse. It takes an historical incident and creates a story world that mixes fact and fiction in a filmic way. Consequently, this film generated far more discussion and debate in Australia than its Irish counterpart did in Ireland. Despite the subject matter of The Magdalene Sisters, it failed to arouse a response or debate in the public domain.

(Re)creating the world

The Magdalene Sisters is a film that is episodic in style and littered with statements. The nun counting her money and the nuns eating a ‘full Irish breakfast’ behind a lattice-like partition while the girls make do with bread and water are scenes that display the injustices and double-standards of the church that an Irish audience is no longer surprised at. In terms of the overall narrative, however there is no progression acted out in this film. A series of episodes strung together displays an anger that is very real and valid as revelation after revelation is made in Ireland with regard to the past. But in terms of the film, this structure hinders the story by allowing it to degenerate into farce at one level (in the out-door Mass scene) and implausibility, at another level, when the two remaining characters, Bernadette and Rose, finally decide to escape.

Because the characters do not serve any distinct or key role within the story world of the film, the focus of responsibility and blame is sometimes blurred. It is difficult not to see Margaret as in some way culpable of hastening Crispina’s journey to the ‘lunatic asylum’, thus presenting a narrative glitch that leaves a very uneasy feeling in the viewer. If it was the intention of director Peter Mullan to set up a link to the ‘culpability of insiders’ convention in many films dealing with the Jewish experience in German concentration camps during the Second World War, then this intention would only succeed in further removing us from the emotional realm: inter-textual inferences demand intellectual engagement of a sort that is in stark contrast the contained emotional storyworld of Rabbit Proof Fence.

Rabbit Proof Fence is the story of one girl’s determination to go home; not to be subjected to a fate decided by outside forces. This film uses the medium to convey a tale of epic proportions, survival against the odds, triumph in the face of adversity. It does so in a uniquely understated narrative style. It is not a mainstream, classical narrative in the Hollywood sense. It eschews plot points and act breaks yet it is conventional in the sense of a linear progression and by remaining focussed on cause and effect. It creates a storyworld that is hermetically sealed and therefore true to itself.

Whereas the characters in The Magdalene Sisters are externally focalized, not driven by any inner feeling, and do little about their circumstances until the plot needs to be wound up at the end of the film, the main character in Rabbit Proof Fence is consistent from the beginning. She is driven by her deep, inner emotions (like great classical rather than postmodern characters) and acts out of a personal need that is stronger than any outside force. Molly’s character is built and focussed as the audience gets to know her complexity at each stage of the narrative: her courage and intelligence. She displays a dogged determination in contrast to the fatalism of the Irish characters that are powerless in the face of the ideological state apparatus. Interestingly, in The Magdalene Sisters, it is Crispina who displays the greatest complexity; but she is not one of the central characters.

The Magdalene Sisters’ narrative progresses in a straight line. The events are used to convey details of a story that does not present any surprises, suspense or conflict whereas the narrative in Rabbit Proof Fence brings the audience along while submerging them more deeply at each key stage. Through the use of cinematic devices, the alien environment that is Moore River is evoked through internal focalization. Molly looks up at Mr. Neville, Chief Protector and the audience is given her point of view. While Olive’s recapture is used in Rabbit Proof Fence as motivation to escape, driving the main character in a heroic way; in The Magdalene Sisters Una’s return is what makes Margaret change her mind, as she fatalistically climbs back into bed. While this may be more in keeping with the ideological critique of the myth of heroic action, it contravenes the expectations of the universal story whereby the audience is brought out of ‘reality’ to another world, the world of the story.

The cinematography reveals what Molly ‘sees and hears’ in Rabbit Proof Fence, how she accumulates information and acts on it to achieve her journey’s end. The landscape plays its part narratively, the fence poetically linking Molly to her mother at key moments while the soundtrack is central to conjuring up the aboriginal world. Each sequence is linked aesthetically by scenes of landscape giving this film a visual evenness that is absent in The Magdalene Sisters. Margaret’s opportunity to escape is rejected when she returns voluntarily to the institution. Unlike Molly she is trapped by her trepidation, and what has now become an alien environment, the outside world. Whereas hope drives Molly, fear drives her Irish opposites.

Rabbit Proof Fence tells of a collective experience through the tale of one character yet it is not hindered by sticking rigidly to every historical detail. The Magdalene Sisters expresses many historical details (that are undoubtedly true) but by shunning the narrative device of following the path of a defined storyline it fails to convey a sense of ‘truth’ with regard to its subject matter and ultimately does a disservice to the tale.

Both films present very different experiences for the viewer. Rabbit Proof Fence tells a classic story of survival and triumph in a universal way. It tells of an Odysseus-like character that draws on key human characteristics of determination and will in order to embark on a near impossible journey. While one film clearly engages on an emotional level, the other keeps the viewer at arm’s length, inviting intellectual engagement in parts. The audience response of laughter to many scenes in The Magdalene Sisters might suggest that these stories are still too raw for Irish audiences to engage with at any deep emotional level. These films thus support the position that history is a good place for fact, detail and argument whereas drama, as Mamet states, is a domain for recounting a story. Both disciplines serve separate functions for a nation to recount and explore aspects of its past.

What is interesting about these films is that they both enjoyed commercial success and relatively long box-office runs; in terms of recent Irish cinema, The Magdalene Sisters was significantly more commercially successful than most other Irish films. On the other hand, as a record of an historical event and an expression of the human spirit, it is clear which film will resonate. By telling a story, the purpose of the dramatic form, and creating such a distinctive storyworld, the spirit of Rabbit Proof Fence will linger long after the memory of The Magdalene Sisters has vanished.

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 92, 2003

Díóg O’Connell is a lecturer in Film & Media Studies at IADT, Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin. She completed her PhD in 2005 entitled ‘Narrative Strategies in Contemporary Irish Cinema 1993-2003’ and has published articles and critical reviews on this period. Her book, New Irish Storytellers: Narrative Strategies in Film is published by Intellect, 2010.

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From the Archive: Breaking (Down) the Budget

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Low-budget can mean anything from a few hundred grand to small change and some pocket-lint. But no matter the size of your lump sum, what’s the smartest way to spend your money in low-budget filmmaking? Conor McMahon talks to directors Brian O’Toole, Paul Ward, Eoin Macken and himself…  

 

 

Budgets are strange things. From the few films I’ve produced, I’ve always found them difficult and frustrating to put together. It’s impossible to tell how much most things will cost. How do you know how much footage will be shot or how much food will be eaten? And without accurate figures, how can you ever make a definite budget? I’ve also found it odd that on bigger films a budget is put together when they don’t even know exactly how it’s going to be shot, or how the director plans on staging certain things. But in the end, a budget is something you need to get things moving, to convince people it’s possible so you can secure finance.

 

The other thing about budgets is that a lot of people won’t talk about them. They don’t want people to know how much their film cost. And it’s understandable. If you’ve made a film for 100,000 and you say it cost 500,000, chances are you’ll probably be able to sell it for more on the market. It’s often only at the very lower end of the spectrum that people will proudly declare that their film cost a week’s wages, and use that as a selling point. The zombie film Colin that was shot earlier in the year and was apparently made for £40. Another example would be of course El mariachi, which used the fact that it only cost $7000 as a selling point.

 

In the age of digital filmmaking it’s easier than ever to pick up a camera and go out a shoot a film. But how much money do you need to do it? The answer is often whatever you have and whatever you can get.

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Memoria

– Dir: Brian O’Toole

– Overall Budget: €25,000

– Filmed on 16 mm

 

Budget Breakdown

 

For stock we used 25 x 400ft cans at €130 a pop – €3,250. We shot on an Arriflex SR3, so equipment and lights, including a 21-day rental of an underwater camera casing – €15,000. Processing and Telecine to Digibeta (both in Lisbon, at a very, very accommodating place called Tobis) – €2,200. The remainder went on travel expenses, food and some beers. No one got paid a dime.

 

 

Do you think having more money would have helped?

 

I’m not sure it would have made much difference to the actual film. But it would have been great to be able to pay people for their hard work. I’d have taken more time over more money, though.

 

Were there any advantages to having less money?

 

You have to think very creatively to shoot effectively on a low budget, especially on film.

 

What kind of favours did you pull to get the film made?

 

The cast and crew worked for free. Various bands played a fundraiser for us. We got money from parents and friends and the use of some cool locations through friends of the family.

 

Where should your money go in a low-budget films?

 

For me, it’s visuals. There’s no reason low-budget films have to look ugly. And quality gear is key. After that, quality food. It keeps people happy.

 

 

Did you write the idea for a low-budget? If so, what did you take into account when writing the script?

 

Yes, the whole project was geared towards the budget from the get-go.

 

Would you make another film at this level, or do you think it served as a training ground for something bigger?

 

I learned a hell of a lot. Of course I’d like to make something bigger, but I’d do it again. I just love making films.

 

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Fur Coat and No Knickers

– Dir: Paul Ward

– Overall Budget: €22,000

– Shot on Z1

 

Budget Breakdown

 

Camera equipment for the 17-day shoot and pick-up days – €3,500. Sound equipment for the same length of time – €3,000. Lights rental for the same –  €2,800 We rented tracks for a few days of the shoot – €500.

Most of the locations were free but we paid for a few of the days – €500.

Costume and props for shoot – €1,400. Catering for the whole shoot and pick-up days – €3,000. Office and accountants – €2,000. Post-production, Digibeta, travel – €4,600.

 

What kind of favours did you pull to get the film made?

 

All the cast’s fees were deferred, and nearly all of the crew and most of the fees for the locations, editing and sound mixing were all deferred. The songs were a huge favour.

 

Where should your money go in a low-budget films?

 

Get a really good camera and DOP and as many lights as you can stretch your budget to. And also insurance as it makes everything so easy and it’s better to get the best.

 

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The Disturbed

– Dir: Conor McMahon

– Overall Budget: €1,530

– Shot on Sony Z1

 

 

Budget Breakdown

 

Location for the 6-day shoot – €550. Camera for the 6-day shoot – €150. Travel – €50. Food – €230. Post Sound – €200. Mini DV Tapes – €60. Effects – €90. Digibeta Tapes – €200.

 

Was the film written for a no-budget?

 

On this film I used the old rule of no-budget film – take your actors to one location and chop them up. I actually just booked a house down the country a month in advance so it gave me a deadline to come up with a story and get everything organised.

 

Did you have much cast or crew to deal with?

 

We had three actors in total and three people on the crew, including myself, so there was very little expenses for food or transport.

 

Having made a film already for €100,000, what was the purpose of going back to make a film for €1,500?

 

The film started out as an experiment in improvisation on film. I wanted to just focus on something simple that would allow me work with actors. I wanted to get away from the rigidity that often comes with having a large crew. So I didn’t have any intention at the beginning of how long the film would be or how it would turn out. I also wasn’t under any pressure to deliver a particular kind of film or make something that would sell. And it was quite liberating to make a film in that frame of mind, because the focus was just on the scenes and making them work and also having fun. So having no budget can be a big plus.

 

I think you can spend a lot of time worrying about what will sell and if the film will look crap if it’s made for no money. But I don’t think you should be asking these kinds of questions. If it turns out crap, just don’t show it to anyone.

 

Do you need a lot of money for post-production?

 

Some people decide not to shoot their film because they hear about the costs for the deliverables that are required by sales agents and distributors. This can include legal documents, publicity material, copies of the finished product and additional copies for subtitling and dubbing. But the truth is, if your film is good, someone will foot that bill. So I wouldn’t worry about it when you’re doing your budget. Just focus on getting the film made, and if it works, someone will pick it up.

 

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The Inside

– Dir: Eoin Macken

– Overall Budget €4,000

– Shot on Sony Z1

 

Budget Breakdown

 

The bulk of the money when on insurance, which was important considering the location we were shooting. The rest went on camera and lights, make-up effects, costume, and then food costs. But because the film was shot over only 5 days, we were able to keep the costs down.

 

Do you think having more money would have helped?

 

It would have in terms of allowing more time. When you’re making a film on a shoestring you can’t ask people to give up too much of their time if they are not been paid. More money also would have given us more time to experiment with lighting.

 

Were there any advantages to having less money?

 

There are, because you pull together people who believe in the idea of the project, the vision and they want to create something that they are proud of and can stand by instead of just working on a job.

 

What kind of favours did you pull to get the film made?

 

Most of the favours consisted of getting the location and cheaper equipment. Obviously crew and cast had to give their time. Making a film like this requires the coming together of many talented people. It won’t happen otherwise.

 

What do you think you should prioritise spending money on for low budget films?

 

The priority has to be the essentials. Getting the right camera and lighting and sound equipment is paramount. Without good sound and good compositions then what’s the point? You have to try and aspire to make the most of whatever you can afford or get your hands on but be smart about it. Food is a priority of course, you can’t expect people to work with you, no matter how much they are enjoying it both socially and creatively, if they’re not being kept warm, safe and well fed. Tea and biscuits will not suffice, it’s not fair to expect people to pay for their own food and petrol, or taxis, for example, if you’re shooting late or early.

 

Did you write the idea for a low budget? If so, what did you take into account when writing the script?

 

For The Inside, yes. I explained to Franco Noonan, my producer, that this was a film that could be done within a short time span, and with minimal cash. There is a looseness that comes with making a film this way that can really benefit it. Of course it can hinder the project but that’s why you should choose an idea or story that fits in with the resources that you have available. I find that this is a great spur because it forces you to create and think imaginatively, try different things and focuses your mind and energy on what you can do.

 

Would you make another film at this level, or do you think it served as a training ground for something bigger?

 

I see making films at this level as a training ground and useful platform to experiment with ideas. The Inside my fourth feature. The first, Christian Blake, was made for less than €8,000 over 18 months. (The budget went mainly on food!) It showed at the Galway Film Fleadh and then sold in the AFM and released across the US and Canada on DVD. The documentary The Fashion of Modelling was made for about €1,200 and was picked up for an hour slot by RTÉ 2 and the feature Dreaming For You was shot in New York for €700. That screened in Galway last year and is doing the festival circuit this year.

 

 This article first appeared in Film Ireland Magazine Issue 132 – Spring 2010

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From the Archive: How To Get Ahead in Acting?

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Illustration by Adeline Pericart

 

How to get ahead in acting? Gordon Gaffney talks to the Gaiety School of Acting, actor’s agent Maureen McGlynn and casting directors Thyrza Ging and Maureen Hughes.

 

Raw talent, steely determination, hard work and jammy luck are essential requirements for an actor to get regular work. But could it be that completion of the finest training and great on-screen looks are not the be-all and end-all? Could a mistake as simple as sending an impersonal, blanket email to every Irish actors’ agent make or break a career?

 

There are a huge number of actors available to work in Ireland at any one time. According to Amy Dawson, coordinator of the Gaiety School of Acting, 16–20 actors graduate from their full-time course each year, with another 90 or so graduating from the one-year part time course and a staggering 1500 or more from their 10-week acting courses throughout the year. A recent casting seminar in Filmbase attracted 300 applicants and there are about 500 actors’ profiles on the Irish Equity website, which is only a fraction of the total number out there. With such a large supply of acting talent, it’s crucial that you go about securing work in the correct manner and avoid common pitfalls with the three most important weapons in an actor’s arsenal: the CV, headshot and showreel.

 

Casting director Thyrza Ging has cast feature films Satellites and Meteorites and Savage and the television mini-series Prosperity, and is also guest tutor on the Acting for Film and TV training course in Filmbase, giving advice to actors on the business side of acting.

 

So you’ve photographed yourself in the mirror using your phone, is this enough?

 

Headshots

’Your head shot is your calling card’ explains Thyrza ‘and the most important thing with a headshot is to give a true and fair view of who you are as a person. Some photographers say, “Please don’t smile” but if you are a very smiley person it isn’t going to be a good representation of who you are.’ Prices for professional headshots range from €80 where you may just receive your photos on an CD, to €200 which may include multiple A4 copies, and personalized business cards with your headshot and contact details on it – very handy for schmoozing opportunities at industry drinks receptions, glamorous film festivals and the Filmbase basement.

 

‘It’s very important to get it right, and for you to feel comfortable in front of the camera,’ Thyrza continues. ‘I recommend actors to at first to play around with a digital camera in the back garden because it is important that you feel comfortable in front of the camera before spending hundreds of euro on a shot. The standard in the Irish industry and the UK is a black and white A4 photograph. In America it’s colour, but a lot of actors here, especially red-headed actors, get colour shots done’

 

Have all casting directors embraced the information superhighway? Some common sense research will help. ‘A lot of casting directors will say it on their websites if they want you to forward a hard copy and not an email – or vice versa. If you do send a hard copy in, I would recommend that you put the headshot and the CV into a ring binder sleeve – it makes life easier for the casting director. Personally, I prefer email.’

 

Attention to detail in you CV is vital

 

In the corporate world of Ponzi schemes and inappropriate loans to company directors, there isn’t a rigid format to a person’s CV. However, all actors’ CVs, like all scripts, are laid out the same way.

 

‘If you have representation, obviously put your agent’s details on the CV at the top, nice and big, all contact details, phone numbers, emails, etc.,’ Thyrza explains. ‘Don’t cc it to every agency in town, there aren’t that many of us, and if you are representing yourself make sure your mobile number and email address are everywhere. Separate your TV and film work from your theatre work, and don’t be afraid to put in short films that you have worked on or commercials, or even voiceover work, because that’s a very particular skill to have – it means you can take words off a page and bring them to life.’

 

‘Always put in the name of the character, even if it was Waiter Number One, and put in the director as well. Also, if it’s a television programme, put in whether it’s RTE, BBC or HBO, because that will jump off the page for a casting director’

 

Showreels

 

A showreel is an edited example of your work of approximately 3–5 minutes duration. What should it contain? ‘You should have three contrasting scenes where your character is the focus. One thing not to do is put a lot of time and effort into a fancy edited montage piece at the beginning. It defeats the purpose because a casting director has only a limited amount of time to watch your piece. And be sure to have your own or your agent’s contact details on the footage.’

 

Hard copy or link? ‘A link is cheaper, you can send it out as many times as you like, you can change it and edit it more easily, and then send me the edited version. I can share it with directors much more easily than hard copy, and I’ll always have a link handy.’

 

iPhones and Blackberrys are essential tools for a casting director but they will also interact with you in person, if you go about it professionally. ‘We are always interested in meeting new talent. So be straight up and professional and just email us, saying, ‘I would really appreciate it if I could meet you for a cup of coffee’. Once they meet you in person, it’s easier to progress to that first audition, rather than just being another headshot. ‘If you want to send an email invitation to a casting director for your theatre show then you should have had that in-person meeting first. You’ve got to do your homework too.’

 

What else should an aspiring actor do? ‘If all of your experience has been in theatre then perhaps you should do an acting for camera course. It’s a very different medium, and the audition process in itself is very different. The advantage is that you can rewind it, play it back and understand it a little better. And sign up for the Irish Film Board, Filmbase and IFTN newsletters and keep an eye on the Call For and Film News sections on filmireland.net. Find out what’s shooting at the moment, who’s got funding and that kind of stuff, because not all projects will have a casting director associated. If you know what’s going on and you know who to talk to, you might get an audition on the back of that. ‘

 

Thyrza’s website caters for both actors and producers and you can visit it here www.castingireland.ie

 

The actor’s agent

The Gaiety School of Acting estimates that the majority of their full-time graduates get an agent in their first year: about 15–20 aspiring stars every year. This person acts as the artist’s point of contact with the casting director.

 

Maureen McGlynn of First Call Management started in stage production and after finishing with the International Theatre Cooperative went freelancing. She was then offered a month’s work in an actor’s agency and is still there 20 years later. ‘There are about 12 agencies in total, and that would include a couple of co-operative agencies which are staffed by the actors themselves. So to work there you would make a commitment to do four hours every week or two weeks. You go in and do the phones, and act as an agent during that period.’

 

So what’s the day-to-day like in an actor’s agency? ‘We get a script or a casting brief from a casting director or producer, which contains a breakdown of how the casting director envisages each character. We then submit our suggestions, including pictures and CVs if necessary, and slot people into an age range. We would try not to make judgments that might be deemed typecasting, because our clients would shoot us for that. The casting director then makes their decision on the actors they would most like to see. Where appropriate, we may well try and cajole the reluctant casting director into occasionally seeing people that aren’t on their most wanted list. We facilitate the process, communicate with our actor clients and set them up, giving them the script pages that they will have to read and any other necessary information.’

 

Maureen confirms the answer to the actor’s ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything (when sending a CV). ‘I think it’s ill-advised to cc it to every agent in town. And take those few extra seconds to sign the letter if you are sending it via snail mail. You’ve got to be very conscious of behaving in a professional manner, it’s an incredibly competitive industry. We would take on two or three clients a year, so don’t trash your present agent if you are looking to change. Ours is a relationship based on mutual trust. We have never signed a contract – a contract can’t mandate the things necessary for the agent/actor relationship to work. If it breaks down on either side, well then it’s just time to move on.’

 

So if there is no contract, how does the business relationship function? ‘With many actors working on low-budget projects, sometimes no money changes hands. The agent’s work must still be done: I spent 12 hours, recently, working on a short film contract where I won’t be paid. However, based on that, the actor might get work in other areas – though normally the shorts are straight offers to our clients’

 

The agent seems to play the role of a loving parent to the actor. ‘We would certainly see every show that we have a client in, because we’ve got to keep up with their work and be a bit of support for them. You need to remind yourself how good they are, because if you represent them, you do believe they are good’

 

Maureen is keen to stress one positive outcome of the economic downturn and reduction in production. ‘It has given us the opportunity to spend the time needed to look at new media rights. Producers are trying to impose a clause into an actor’s contract whereby they purchase all media rights not yet invented in perpetuity. This was discussed at the SIPTU conference recently. All the agents and Equity meet every couple of months to discuss common issues, and we can now dedicate time to that – an incredibly important item from an actor’s point of view.’

 

Actors can send headshots and CVs to Maureen at fcm@indigo.ie

 

Maureen Hughes

 

Maureen Hughes trained as artistic assistant under Garry Hynes at Druid Theatre Company in the ’80s and went on in 1992 to work in the Abbey Theatre for two-and-a-half years as head of casting. She has since moved on to cast several major screen productions, including the Oscar®-winning films Six Shooter and Once. She is also casting director on the upcoming Love-Hate, which stars Aidan Gillen and features a lot of new faces, some of whom have come through the training system both in Ireland and England in the last couple of months and who haven’t been on the screen before.

 

Perhaps surprisingly, the casting director goes through an auditioning experience similar to an actor’s. Maureen explains: ‘You’re sent the script so you can have a read of it. You’ll have an instinctive set of ideas, and you send these back to the producer. These instincts allow you to see the people who could inhabit the characters in the script. Also, you are expected to know who’s who, what they’re at and what the acting community is doing here in Dublin at the moment. If they’re ideas they’re interested in, they’ll call me in to meet with the director. This is when I’m ‘auditioning’ for the job because that script has been sent out to three or four casting directors. The success of my relationship with the director will depend on what kind of ideas I’ve had on the first read.’

 

So how stiff is the casting director competition? ‘The budgets in the last couple of years have been extremely tight, working at the bare minimum in film and television. But at one point there would have been eight or ten casting directors working in Ireland and we were always up for the same jobs. But it is about who reads the script, who gets the meet, who does the better meet and who suits the director the best.’

 

Newbies

‘We can’t afford to rule out actors who have very little on their CV, particularly if they are right for the role.’ Maureen discovered Eamonn Owens who played Francie Brady in Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy ‘in a national school in Killeshandra, County Cavan. We kind of knew we wouldn’t find him in a drama class, and there he was at the back of the room with a big red head and fantastic animation in his face’. Outside of casting for psychotic pre-pubescents, where else would she find new talent? ‘I would go to a lot of fringe shows and watch an awful lot of short films. As an actor you have got to start working yourself up some screen credits. Ring third level colleges to get on student films and get your ass out there – you’ve got to get yourself some experience, which will almost always be unpaid in the beginning’

 

So actors can have a rough time of it in the beginning? ‘I would say that the actor’s agent job is actually the hardest. They have to be there at every opening night and at the end of the phone for every crisis. I can actually close the door at six o’clock and go home. About two-thirds of the acting community are not represented in this town – there aren’t enough agents in Dublin to cope with the amount of acting talent there is.’

 

On-book/off-book

So how does the casting director get their choice of actors through the process? Maureen explains: ‘First, you check if the actor is available for the specific period of time. You send them the script in advance and ask them to prep a scene. Then you bring them in to audition. Personally, I don’t mind people not being off-book [reading from the script], but there are casting directors and directors who will be very, very unimpressed if they do. It’s up to the actor himself to check who he is going to be working with. Sometimes I feel if people are really, really off-book then it’s very hard to unlock that performance. Whereas, at least if you have somebody just reading it, they’re not scared to try it a different way.’

 

‘For film and television the audition is everything, because if it ain’t working on the screen, it just ain’t working. We use fairly limited MiniDV cameras but it has got to work on camera on the day.’

 

‘I suppose the big thing is “to thine own self be true” There is nothing worse than coming into the audition dripping with neediness. Are you happy with the way you read? Can you get up out of that chair, walk out the door and go, “well, fuck it, I thought I did great.” I’m looking for the person who does that as opposed to the person who has tried to second guess what we’re looking for and ends up in a very artificial process.’

 

So what’s the bottom line? ‘Good, intelligent preparation is everything. Who are you meeting in the room? What are they like? What are their expectations? I’m bringing you in there, so ring me. I want you as prepped as you can be, because I don’t want to look foolish either.’

 

Maureen Hughes is contactable at maurz@indigo.ie

 

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From the Archive: Graham Linehan – Master of Comedy

Graham Linehan Open Interview 15

How does comedy writer extraordinaire Graham Linehan do it? An IFTA ‘In Conversation With…’ interview gave Ross Whitaker the low-down

It’s probably fair to say that despite the mightiness of our craic and the seemingly bottomless pit of successful Irish comedians pulling faces on channels at home and abroad, we probably couldn’t really consider ourselves to be masters of television comedy.

This nagging feeling isn’t helped by the close proximity to us of a country that has produced some of the finest panel, sketch and situation comedy in the history of television. In recent times, what have we produced to rival the likes of Fawlty Towers, The Fast Show, Have I Got News For You, Only Fools and Horses or The Office? We haven’t even come close.

There have been good moments, no doubt. Back in the day, Don’t Feed the Gondolas had its moments and I, for one, was highly impressed by the recent rté sketch show Your Bad Self and was sorry to hear that it won’t be returning. Still, the success stories have been few and far between.

There’s one shining light, of course: a superb sit-com about priests, created by Irish writers and starring Irish actors that proved to be massively successful. Father Ted was no less than a phenomenon. And despite our poor tv comedy record, pretty much the only thing not Irish about Ted was that it was commissioned and broadcast by Channel 4.

By now, everyone in Ireland knows that the brilliant duo of Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan somehow fused their substantial talents to create a work of true genius. Father Ted is up there with the best of them, a complete classic that will no doubt be repeated on the small screen time and time again for many years to come without ever getting tired.

Since then, Linehan has gone on to create the outstanding comedy series Black Books with Dylan Moran and, more recently, The it  Crowd. It would be fair to say, he’s cracked it, so it was with great interest that I attended the recent ifta event, In Conversation with Graham Linehan.

Linehan was in Ireland for the making of a definitive Father Ted documentary to be directed by Adrian McCarthy of Wildfire Films, one he hopes will dispel a lot of myths that have grown up about Ted.

The biggest, he says, is that Father Ted was first offered to and refused by rté. Linehan and Mathews had already been working in London and developing relationships with broadcasters for a while when they came up with the idea of Ted, so pitching it in the uk seemed like the sensible thing to do.

‘We didn’t do it with RTÉ because we were in England and we had a career there, so it would have been strange to go back to Ireland and start from the bottom in  RTÉ, a company that never really made a successful studio sitcom. Because there was no infrastructure in Ireland for those kind of studio sitcoms, it would have been crazy to give it to them.  RTÉ did many great things but studio sitcoms was not one of them.’

 

Linehan had started out as a music journalist and film critic in London and seized his chance to move into comedy writing when Mathews decided to also move to the UK. They ended up living together for four years and developing a close writing relationship.

‘Me and Arthur had this thing – because Arthur has an incredible sense of humour – and we were able to translate our conversations onto the page and it was just a good mix.’

‘We took turns. Arthur would write two pages and then I’d sit down and read it and I’d laugh and I’d have an idea for fixing something, so I’d edit it and then I’d write on a few pages. We used to have Magic Eye pictures and basically one of us would be writing and the other would be staring at a picture trying to see a rabbit.’

This ability and desire to edit their own work seems to be central to their success as writers. Linehan explains that he and Mathews were always happy to redraft their work if they felt it would make it better and suggests it’s something more writers might embrace.

‘We were very happy to throw out a scene or a plotline if it didn’t work. Writers can sometimes be defensive about notes but we would be happy to take it away and create a new plotline and ten pages that were totally different. I love that.’

‘To me, the first draft is always a horrible, unpleasant grind but the second draft and the third draft I love because you can see the story, the jokes are getting better and bad plotlines are being squeezed out by the good stuff and then you get to a stage where the script is in such good shape that you’re literally just talking about full-stops and commas and that’s a nice place to be and that’s when the really funny one-liners come in.’

‘I do find that a lot of writers still don’t understand how important rewriting is and how your first draft is just notes for the main draft. I see it as a bunch of notes, potentially funny ideas, jokes and situations that might work or might not. The first draft is just there so I have something to work from for the second draft where it really starts coming to life.’

Subsequent to Father Ted, Linehan and Mathews created Big Train, a sometimes surreal sketch show featuring Simon Pegg and Catherine Tate amongst others. While it was different from Ted, Linehan prefers not to use the word experimental. The aim is not to experiment but to make people laugh.

‘My thing is that telling a funny story or joke is already difficult enough, so I’m not really interested in pushing the boat out. I just want to be funny and it’s hard. When you hear an experimental piece of music, I think that’s easy to do; the difficult thing to do is create a song that’s around forever.’

While Linehan has also written for sketch shows like Alas Smith and Jones, The Fast Show and Harry Enfield and Chums in the past, his niche really seems to be the family-friendly sitcom that can be enjoyed by all.

‘I think with media now, everything is becoming atomized. Everyone in the family is in a different room on a different kind of media. I think what I’d like to do is try to bring everybody back into the room.’

‘It’s the stuff I always watched with my dad when I was a kid. I don’t think I’ll ever feel the excitement again of dad finally saying, ‘Ok, you can watch Fawlty Towers.’ I’m not too interested in mission statements but I do want to avoid comedy that drives people out of the room. If you’re watching a comedy show and somebody says something about menstruation and your father goes, “I’ll just go and make a cup of tea…” I want to do stuff that keeps you in the room.

Linehan shows a clip from The it Crowd that perfectly represents what he’s aiming for. An escalating scene where one gag leads to the next, each laugh greater than the last.

‘That’s what I’m always trying to do… You come up with a situation that has to be very believable because if it’s not believable nobody will laugh. But it also needs to be the kind of situation that gives birth to lots of other situations. If the situation is good then you’re almost just transcribing what would actually happen next.’

What’s clear listening to Linehan is just how much hard work he puts into making his shows look easy. The amount of thought and effort that goes into creating high quality comedy is mind-boggling and Linehan is certainly a man that all aspiring writers could learn from.

 

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 134 in 2010. 

 

 

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From the Archive: Paul Webster takes a look at the Irish post-production scene.

Foley artists at work

 Foley artists at work

Getting to wrap can seem like such a sprint across the finishing line that you might be worn out by the time you get to post-production. However, as we all know, production is a marathon and although post sometimes seems like the home straight, really you’re only half-way there.

Ok, that’s the last time I’ll use the running metaphor, I promise.

In recent years, Ireland has become a hub for post-production facilities and has garnered an international reputation for excellence. To get a handle on current trends, I spoke to some of the leading names in post-production in Ireland.

With the current advancements in this field and the apparent affordability, it is easier than ever to push post-production to the back of your mind. However, as Paul Moore, Chair of Ardmore Sound says, ‘The smart money sees post-production as being as much a part of the creative process as shooting.’

Dublin in particular has become a strong base for post houses with more than 10 major facilities operating in the capital alone, and then there are other post production centres like Telegael in Galway, The Mill in Cork, and Banjax Studios in Belfast. The specialities of these various companies range from television and commercial editing to feature editing, as well as facilities concentrating mainly on sound, animation and visual effects (VFX).

I’ve been travelling around to some of these companies and speaking with their directors, editors and supervisors. Getting time to speak to them is very difficult – the good news is, they’re busy! As well as domestic film and television projects, post houses are dealing with major international productions that see Ireland as somewhere with a suite of options open to them.

‘All of the facilities in town have proved that they can provide post-production services in an international marketplace for both broadcast and theatrical release,’ says Jim Duggan, MD of Screen Scene. ‘The main one we did last year was Game of Thrones. Effectively, Screen Scene was the post-production home for Game of Thrones and at one stage there were 66 people in this building working on the show. The post-production industry here has proved that it has the capacity, the capabilities, the knowledge and the people required to service international television and feature films. I think we’ve always had the talent and in the last few years there has been a volume of work that has allowed the talent to prosper and show that this work can be done in Ireland.’

A trend of collaboration between companies has also emerged here. When I visited Windmill Lane, they were completing work on the impressive visual effects for Titanic and at Ardmore Sound they were also hard at work on the sound mixing for the same series. A ten- to twelve-episode series like this can bring a post-production budget of around €4m, so there is huge value to the economy in building a strong post-production base to attract world-class projects. The work can be spread across various companies and capability has grown massively in the last two to three years.

One area that is in its infancy in this country is VFX, however, this too is changing. Windmill Lane has been developing their VFX department with great success. As well as creating the visuals of the Titanic hurtling towards its imminent demise, the company has also recently completed work on some very exciting projects including the sci-fi thriller Lock-Out Lockout, starring Guy Pearce. The demand for CGI and VFX has grown in the past few years, but it is not just fantasy and sci-fi that require this sort of imaging. As well as blockbuster-style filmmaking, lower-budget films are turning to VFX to save money in high production costs.

As James Morris, CEO of Windmill Lane, says, ‘Makers of period films are turning more and more to VFX to help recreate eras. For example, these methods were used heavily in the recent adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which was set in the sixties.’

‘Although the VFX department grows out of post-production to a certain extent, this will only go so far,’ says Morris. To build a successful VFX industry, we will have to look at it as a completely separate process that requires its own departments, personnel, and scheduling. As the reliance on these sorts of skills grows, filmmakers are going to have to familiarize themselves more with terms like layering, compositing, tracking, modelling, texturing, building assets and rotoscoping – but please don’t ask me to explain any of these.

‘The thing that we’ve discovered is that it’s a different discipline and people need to think of visual effects as part of an art department and not as a separate thing at the end,’ says Jim Duggan. ‘The most successful visual effects that we’ve been involved in were ones where the art department and the visual effects department are working hand in glove. When they talk early on, they collectively find the best way to spend the budget on the look of your show.’

Post-sound is another area that can seem somewhat overwhelming. There are various roles that you may not be familiar with, so Ardmore’s Paul Moore gave me a quick rundown of the post-sound process on an average film project. It goes a little something like this: once the rough cut is assembled, the director will go through the cut with the sound supervisor and break it down together into the elements needed. Usually the first job is the ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) – this is when the actors will be brought back to re-record certain scenes for sound. Nowadays post-sound facilities have the ability to co-ordinate this internationally, so often the actor will be in a different studio in a different country to the director and supervisor. The dialogue editor will then bring these recordings into the appropriate scenes and clean them up.

The next person to do their thing is the sound effects editor, and a Foley artist may also be brought in at this stage to record specific sounds like footsteps, doors opening, slamming etc… I was lucky enough to see a Foley room and I must say it is quite an experience. The floor is covered in different rugs and surfaces, there are boxes and boxes of different shoes and buckets full of different materials like sand and gravel, all just to get the right kind of footstep.

Finally, the music will come in at this stage and all the elements are ready to be mixed, in the final stage of the process. However, the sound supervisor’s job is still not done. He will often have to deliver many different versions of the soundtrack, for example producers might require a Dolby 5.1 version, a stereo version, a version without dialogue for dubbing into foreign languages, a de-sweared version and so on.

So is post-production getting more or less expensive? Well, there is a massive gulf between higher and lower-scale budgets. At the lower end of the scale, filmmakers are taking a much more hands-on approach. More affordable and accessible hardware and software has allowed filmmakers to do a lot more themselves. If you look at any of the film centres around the country you will find that the most popular courses are the ones giving training in software like Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro, Pro Tools, After Effects, etc…

These software packages have led to filmmakers editing at home and then bringing their projects to post facilities for finishing touches.

‘It’s become more normal than abnormal except for bigger projects,’ says Eugene McCrystal of EMC post, which specialises in online and grade facilities. ‘For most projects that I’ve been involved in, we have a discussion with the filmmakers at the start of the process to come up with the best workflow, so by the time it comes to me hopefully it’s straightforward because a plan is in place. When there’s no plan, it gets more complicated.’

However, just because low-budget filmmakers can edit at home, it doesn’t mean they should. Post houses are happy to talk to filmmakers from the very beginning of their career.

‘I’d say this about all of the post houses in Dublin, that all of the facilities here are incredibly supportive of the industry and always have been,’ says Jim Duggan. ‘I say to people that we’re good with every budget from zero to whatever. What post companies hate is somebody coming and saying I spent all of the money on the shoot, so I say to people be realistic about post-production needing a percentage of your budget, whatever that budget is. However, I think that people need to acknowledge that the infrastructure does require feeding. It’s not here by accident and I think it’s important that people support it when they do have money.’

The playing field has been levelled in terms of equipment and technology. However, what really counts is the skills and experience of the talent sitting at the desk, pushing the dials and twiddling the buttons in the studio. In recent years, Irish post-production talent has proved it’s up there with the best in the world.

 

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From the Archive: I Was One of the Hollywood 10

John_Howard_Lawson

Before the gurus, before the weekend seminar, there was J.H. Lawson. Mark McIlrath casts an eye over one of the greatest guides to screenwriting ever published.

John Howard Lawson’s Theory and Technique of Playwriting and Screenwriting was published in 1949. Lawson was the first ‘president’ of the Writer’s Guild of America. A member of the Communist Party, he later suffered during the McCarthy era, becoming one of the Hollywood 10, and was sentenced to a year in prison. He died in 1977. His book remains one of the most perceptive and intelligent guides for the screenwriter. A copy will cost you $250. If you can’t get your hands on a copy, you might be interested in the following, a rough summary of the man’s thoughts on screenwriting.

Unity Of Climax
The unifying element in the film, as in other story-structures, is the climax, the ultimate event that brings the action to a point of maximum tension and solution. The climax is the key to the system of events.

An experienced screenwriter is likely to begin preparation of his screenplay at the climax.

The climax expresses the dramatic purpose of the writer. It is a definite objective which embodies the author’s dominant idea in a meaningful event.

The story as a whole is an action with unity as a whole.

The climax is one effect which binds together the system of causes. All actions contain cause and effect, and the point of tension is the point at which cause is transformed into effect.

The story as a whole is a chain of causes leading to one effect.

If the climax is not the supreme moment of an inevitable struggle, in which the deepest motives and feelings have been dramatised it lacks thematic clarity.

The conscious will of characters is exposed under increasing pressure – humans facing a challenge which has magnitude to their lives. The writer must make it as hard as possible for his characters, putting them under the greatest pressure, and in a position where they need to act. This is a key part of progression in drama.

Each scene must have mounting emotional power with a moment of crisis. It presents a problem to the dominant character of the scene.

The action of a film embraces the direct conflict between individuals and the conditions which oppose or limit their will. We observe this conflict through the conscious will of the characters.

Each triumph or reversal is the culmination of an act of will which produces a change of equilibrium between individuals and their environment. Change requires new adjustments, and makes new complications inevitable.

Scenes – Sequences – Acts, and the film, have the same basic structure.

The writer must consciously know where he enters the paradigm. Scenes generally have unity of time and place. Sequences and Acts, of action:

The cycle of activity commences with a decision to follow a course of action. The tension is developed in fulfilling the decision. A complication requires another decision on higher plane.

EXPOSITION
At the beginning of the film, we wish to understand as fully as possible why the conflict of will is necessary, why the backstory and current experiences of the characters make it necessary. The opening actions sum up this experience. This, in turn, creates the environment which is enlarged as the story proceeds. But it is the same environment.

The forces which determine the original act are the forces which determine its conclusion.

At the beginning an important decision is made. This concentrates the conscious will on a conflict with a defined aim. The conflict is forced on the protagonist(s) by circumstances. The decision made is itself a climax of magnitude and cannot be covered by explanation. Since this situation is the key to the story, a static / underdeveloped opening will affect the movement of the whole story. The decision is so important that it covers all the possibilities of the story, and therefore must be the result of considerable changes in the status quo, whether between the individuals, or with their environment.

Since exposition covers the possibilities of drama, it must be more closely connected to the climax than any other part of the film.

The unity of the story is the unity between the exposition and the climax.

The visual impact of the opening scene is also a requirement of film structure. The sweep and drive of forces that come to a head in the climax must be visualised in the exposition. In any film, the camera must be co-author.

The exposition must introduce the world of the story, literally the time and place, and lay down the genre expectations by which the spectator will understand and inhabit the story. It must pose the problem: it must show the scope and intensity of the struggle that will culminate and be solved at the end. There is also the need to individualise the problem, to define its effect on a personal level. The writer must get an emotional attachment from the start.

THE OBLIGATORY SCENE
The obligatory scene represents the point of foreseen and expected crisis, toward which the progression is moving. It is the physical culmination of the conflict. The climax goes beyond the physical drive, and exposes the thematic meaning of the action.

Screenwriters tend to confuse the obligatory scene with the climax. They often jumble the two together, or develop a climax which is only a repetition and elaboration of the obligatory scene. This happens in films which have no core of meaning that could flower in an effective climax. There is no problem of character or human relationships to be solved. Having exhausted his invention with the obligatory scene, the screenwriter finds he cannot escape the structural law that demands unity in terms of climax.

Conversely, there are films which are powerfully conceived in terms of theme, but where the treatment is abstract, without full development of its meaning in human lives and relationships. In these films, the obligatory scene is likely to be weak, and the whole force of the concept is concentrated in the climax.

It is natural to speak of the climax as a point of action. This gives the correct impression that it is closely knit and sharply defined. But it is not necessarily a point of time. It may be a complex event; it may combine several threads of action; it may be divided into several scenes; it may take a very abrupt or extended form.

The climax furnishes us with a test by which we can analyse the action backward; the obligatory scene offers us an additional check on the forward movement of the action.

The audience don’t know what the climax will be, but they do test the action against their expectation, which is concentrated on what they believe to be the necessary outcome of the action – the obligatory scene. A story must provide a point of concentration toward which the maximum expectation is aroused. The writer must analyse this expectation. As the obligatory scene is not the final outcome of events, s/he must convince the audience that the break between cause and effect, between the action as intensified by the plot and the thematic conclusion of the climax, is inevitable.

Summing up:
The obligatory scene is a break between expectation and fulfilment, and an effective bridge to the climax. What happens needs to be inevitable, and an integral part of the protagonist’s experience.

The obligatory scene asks a question; it remains for the climax to provide the answer

CLIMAX
The climax is the controlling point in the unification of the dramatic movement. It is not the noisiest moment; it is the most meaningful moment, and therefore the moment of most intense strain, and is the result of an intensification of decision.

In principle, the climax is the root and culmination of the action. In practice, the screenwriter is all too frequently faced with the necessity of inventing a final situation that is only formally related to the previous development of the story.

In films where the obligatory scene is logically the end of the action, Act 3 is like starting a new plot, with new exposition leading to a new series of situations. This in turn sets up a renewed effort and goal for the will and destroys unity of action.

The climax must be rooted in the emotional experience of the characters in order to communicate the experience to the audience

PROGRESSION
At first glance it may appear that the obligatory scene and the climax are the same thing; but there is a very important difference between the expected clash and the final clash.
The obligatory scene may, in certain instances, be almost identical with the climax in time and place; but there is a great difference in function between the thing we do and the result of the thing we do, a sharp break between cause as it seemed and the effect as it turns out.
The same contradiction exists in all the subordinate cycles of action, and creates the progression.

The more important moments at which such a recognition occurs are the obligatory scenes of the various cycles of action. The break between cause and effect leads to the actual effect, the culmination of the action. For this reason, the climax invariably contains the element of surprise; it is beyond our expectation, and is the result of a break in the expected development of the action.

Surprise is the essence of drama, and is present in every movement of the action. But recognition of the break between cause and effect is very different from ignoring or evading the logic of events. We must know the cause.

Many films have a rising action that does not rise, a progression that fails to progress. The circumstances and problems that determine the action are not sufficiently important to keep it moving. The climax established in the exposition and culminating in the climax is not vital enough to occupy our time – or the time of the characters.

If the progression has explored all the potentialities of the situation at the obligatory scene, it will be exceedingly difficult to carry it forward to a climax. The result is an excuse for further action, rather than it being a condition of action.

The problem that the screenwriter faces stems from his failure to establish conditions in the exposition which rationally explain and motivate the ensuing action, a thematic purpose that will guide and inspire the protagonist through the plot to a meaningful conclusion.

There must be structural preparation for the development of the problem, which has psychological consistency, the build up of a sense of inevitability in which the protagonists will come face to face with the fate that has been closing in on them – a visual and dramatic portrayal of the forces that constitute the framework of social causation, shown through the conscious will and decisions of the characters under increasing pressure.

CHARACTERISATION
The only way in which we can understand character is through the actions to which it is subsidiary. Actions must not be limited and chaotic, they must exhibit a sustained purpose.

Drama is when circumstances trap the character and s/he cannot avoid committing an act, and this is both dramatically and psychologically the key to progression – and therefore the key to character.

Emotional participation unites the audience with the action.

Identification is more than sympathy. Identification means sharing the character’s purpose, not his virtues.

The main problem of characterisation is progression – the character maintaining the same attitude throughout means that it is not a human being at all, but a mere embodiment of two or three characteristics which are fully displayed in the first 10 minutes and then repeat themselves. Characters can have neither depth nor progression except insofar as they make and carry out decisions which have a definite place in the system of events which drive toward the climax.

To increase the emotional load, characters need to change. For emotional engagement, tensions need to be built. If there is no tension, there is also no solution, and no final moment of breaking tension. A character must react to the necessities of his environment, his conscious will must be exposed.

We are moved by what moves the characters. Film poses an absolute necessity (which determines what the protagonist does) against a conflict in which the conscious will, exerted for the accomplishment of specific and understandable aims, is sufficiently strong to bring the conflict to a point of crisis. Conflict reveals character.

Progression is a matter of structure, and meaning is a matter of theme. Neither problem can be solved until we find the unifying principle which gives the screenplay its wholeness, binding a series of actions into an action which is organic an indivisible.

Comment
Paul Schrader’s injunction to put ‘the theme in every scene’ restates Lawson’s unity of climax. The basic ideas seem dry. They are dry, especially compared to the Syd Field school of screenplay-by-numbers. But isn’t the idea of the obligatory scene clearer in its function, and more helpful towards the overall construction, than Plot Point 2, or even Crisis?

Checking each scene against the climax is a useful tool, even for experienced screenwriters.

John Howard Lawson was an early theorist who took cinema seriously. Current Hollywood ideas about sequential structure have taken up the paradigm Lawson described to divide the screenplay further into manageable units, groups of scenes with common purpose and goal, tested against the overall climax. It’s just surprising that Lawson’s book is invisible when assorted smart-arses and smug, over-paid, jargon-mongering script consultants get so much acclaim.

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 95 in 2003.

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From the Archive: Irish Playwrights & Screenwriters Guild: Claire Dix

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Claire Dix is an award winning writer and director of short films and music videos and also works in documentary TV. After winning the Zebbie for Best Short Film Script for her short film Downpour last year, Steven Galvin caught up with her to find out about her approach to writing.

What did winning the Zebbie for Best Short Film Script mean to you?

It’s always wonderful to win an award but the Zebbie was special because it was the first prize I’ve received for scriptwriting. Members of the playwright and scriptwriters guild voted so that was also a real honour to be acknowledged by other writers.

Can you tell us a little bit about the genesis of Downpourfrom idea to script?

The Irish Film Board runs a funding programme called Short Shorts, which they theme each year. When I entered, the theme was ‘Ireland, I Love You’. Sometimes it’s nice to have a framework or to be given a set of rules to work within. I remember at college working on a lot of projects with no theme or without any guidelines and often feeling completely at sea. In hindsight it was good training because that’s how all my projects start these days but Short Shorts was a refreshing break from the open slate.

I wrote two other scripts for the scheme before hitting on the idea for Downpour, which was simply that if you really love something, you love it warts and all. The rain makes Ireland the country that it is and this film aims to celebrate our love/hate affair with it. Downpour has travelled well, winning several awards at festivals both in Ireland and abroad so the rain seems to have struck a chord. Fran Keaveney in the Film Board was extremely supportive during the development process. I have a habit of redrafting and rewriting up until the bitter end, mainly because the script is a living thing for me and I find it hard to stop ideas coming right up until the end of the whole filming process.

So when did you know you wanted to write scripts?

I started writing stories and prose when I was very young and I have a collection of fantastically embarrassing poems and short stories at home about endangered animals, orphaned fairies and chocoholics. The best or worst example from this era is a poem that was published in Ireland’s Own about autumn. The inspiration came mainly from a thesaurus I found at home and the discovery of writery-sounding words like ‘russet’ and ‘burnt umber’. Thankfully the poetry came to an end but I continued to write stories. When I started working in television after college I began to adapt some of these stories into scripts. My writing had always been visual and I was interested in creating atmosphere and what I now know to be a cinematic feel in my stories. Then I saw Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas and I thought – I want to do that.

How do you make your characters come to life?

To begin with I usually base my characters on real people. They eventually take on a life of their own and evolve depending on their relationship with each other and to the plot but in order to get a real sense of them I first have to see them as someone I already know and have a feel for. I’ve started a lot of scripts based on a character that I want to develop only to reach a dead end with the plot. So I have a lot of fully realized characters waiting in the wings for the right story. There’s one in particular who is based on one of my grandparents and I have to find a script for her soon.

Sometimes I think the best characters are ones that can be slightly intimidating at first or ones that have intriguing personalities that take a little while to figure out. I’d like to work more with these kind of characters but it takes time and pages to develop this kind of depth and so far I’ve only written shorts for the screen. Some characters you know almost too well and there isn’t enough space to express them in. This is where great actors can come to the rescue, however.

Downpour was an exception to how I usually start a script, as it was based more on the concept of seeing the rain in a new light, or learning to appreciate something that we usually complain about, rather than beginning with a character. I work a lot with improvisation in rehearsals. We usually start with figuring out the subtext of each scene and understanding what the character wants. Once that’s determined the actor is free to change dialogue and stage direction until we’re all happy that the scene works. This is one the most exciting parts of the process for me but also one of the most daunting because it doesn’t always work the first time.

After writing two successful short films what’s one of the most important things you think you’ve learned about writing?

The main thing I’ve learned is that you have to put your head down every day or on the days you’ve planned to write regardless of whether or not you’re in the mood. Also, I think it’s important to write about what you want to write about and not about what you think will win funding. The worst feeling is when you realize that your idea has already been done or you come across a similar concept in another film. If you’re still hooked on your own idea I think it’s still worth exploring because it could take you on a journey or down a road that you couldn’t have imagined if you hadn’t started writing.

I’m in pre-production on a short at the moment for the Film Board called Alia about an Afghan family living in inner city Dublin. It’s a story about how a family struggles to stay together and understand each other in this new culture they find themselves in. This script evolved out of a completely different story about a psychic and a young Dublin man. Two of the characters in this script grew into the main characters in Alia. I can’t remember where along the line that happened only that I kept writing and eventually realized that the story I thought I was writing had changed into something else.

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From the Archive: I Write Screenplays

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You want to be a screenwriter? You want to have an agent?  A few words of cautionary advice.

 

Part I. I write screenplays

Really? Some kid with an iMac portable. And the portable was paid for by his dad, and you’re sitting next to him. And his mum thinks you are the answer to young Liam’s problems, and her own. And you feel sorry you’re not a dental hygienist, or dead.

And Liam’s a punchy kid of 20 or 30 or 40 who feels you’ve got to listen. And he’s boring you. And you’ve read two scripts that day, and wish it were a movie, so you could stick an ice pick in his head.
Hello Liam – from all us script editors out here.

Screenwriting is not about glamour. It’s not getting paid for your work. Maybe for years. Maybe never. Doing without what you could have paid for if you had had that money. Holidays. Nice clothes. A flat. Self-esteem.
If you know that – this is for You. Before an agent, if you ever get one.

The Reader
If she’s in a production company she probably does a proper job during the day, and reads in her ‘free’ time. And she’s keen.
And keen means you get four hours.
Four hours – max.
That’s for reading, taking notes, and finally writing the report.
You’re judged in two pages. One’s a summary of your story. The second is looking at Plot, Characterisation, Structure, Dialogue, Tone, Style, Genre, Length. If you don’t understand any of these – really understand them – then buy a book. Don’t waste your time – or hers.

The Reader will say what she likes, or doesn’t like – objectively. She’ll make some comparisons, and think about production values, and how it fits in with her boss – the Producer. Then she’ll write: pass – consider – or – recommend. I have never written recommend.

The Script Editor
The Script Editor reads so much she looks like she puts on her mascara with a spray can. Her eyes hurt. They don’t focus very well after midnight.

The Script Editor gets paid for a phase of development.
She works on two or three scripts at a time, reads, and probably writes as well.
She reads ten+ hours a day. She’s read hundreds, maybe thousands of scripts. She’s liked perhaps two dozen.

She gets scripts which have Producers attached. People are staking money on the project. She is getting paid.
Many scripts go into development and don’t go anywhere.
If you are writing, get the Producer to show good faith and pay you.
Buy the PACT guidelines on pay from The Writers’ Guild London (£10), or talk to the Writers’ Centre in Dublin. If the Producer is not willing to hand out some cash, they don’t believe in your project. No matter what they say.
Get some money. No one will respect you less.
Do not start acting the prima donna. Do that, and all these hard working people will smile politely and close the door. And you will be outside.

If you’re working with a Script Editor they’ll write three or four sets of notes for you, and meet you two or three times. Prepare for these meetings.

Know what questions you want to ask. Make sure the Script Editor knows your script almost as well as you do. If they don’t, they’re not doing their job. The Script Editor should genuinely want to help you and be enthusiastic.

The Producer
Judge a Producer by what he’s done. How many people work in the company? Does it have a Head of Development, or some blonde who makes the Producer’s quality of life better?

Look on the Internet Movie Database for his credits. Don’t be afraid to ask about his experience. Find out who he knows. The Irish Producer lives on Co-Productions and soft money. Money from the EC and State. It’s his ability to raise money, and what he can offer in return which matters. Ask the Producer questions. Learn. This could well be where you’ll want to be in 10 years.

Lastly – give the guy a break. He is a shark, and he will screw you as surely as the fact you’re friendless and needy and don’t know the ropes. But, at the end of the day, he might get your film made, and get you a credit, and there are 1000 easier ways of making money than film production.

The Agent
There are no Agents in Ireland who give a toss about screenwriters.
Buy the Artist & Writers Yearbook, and look at London. If you’ve written for TV or theatre they’ll be much more amenable – otherwise it’s production company values. Submit script. Wait four months. Miss Blonde Totty will use it as a coffee mat. I’ve seen scripts lost. Scripts thrown out – unread.

It’s Sunday morning. Ten o’clock. I get up, make a cup of tea. Look at the table – two scripts. If you think I can think of nothing I’d rather do than read your script on my Sunday – Well?
Script 1. Wrong formatting. This fucker doesn’t even bother to format his script right. It’s 135 pages, in 10 font. Am I suddenly blind or stupid? If the first five pages aren’t great – and I mean great – Butch Cassidy – then I’ll have your report finished by 12.

Script 2. Prose. The writer is the main character. Evidently. The cover page has MA Screenwriting. With distinction. And it’s a clueless litany of PC platitudes which simply proves yet again that talent is neither democratic or fair. Here are her problems, sensitively weeped all over the page, not dramatised. The strictly personal, from the universal. And there it sits, on the table, like a big turd, and I put a clothes peg on my nose, and type the report wondering who teaches these courses. And I’m suddenly sorry again that my dog died last year, as I can’t throw it at him.
Work over, and it’s still only two o’clock.

Learn to write
Develop a critical faculty. Look at www.hundland.com – choose a script.
Look for the key scenes – the scenes where the action turns. Choose a scene. How does the story change through the scene? What are the ‘beats’? What’s driving the scene? What’s the relationship between character and action? Is exposition being given? What Act is this? Break the screenplay down. If you know the significant moments in a movie, you’ve got the structure.

II. I want an Agent

Most people who think they can write – can’t.

It is sometimes worth bearing in mind, if most people can’t write, and you are a ‘screenwriter’, what makes you so certain you can?
A good writer has an Agent, but not all writers who have Agents are good writers. Good writers have good Agents.

Most Agents are honest, hardworking, and genuinely interested in writing. They are also smart. Do not treat them as if you’re doing them a favour.
Agents will develop your writing career through their contacts in the business, both in the UK and the US. They will negotiate contracts and deal with Entertainment lawyers. They will give you expert feedback on your script, and make recommendations. They are your best friend. They fight your battles. They help you. They clear the way for a better deal for you. A better tomorrow.

Here are some points to bear in mind:

1. Do some research on Agents who specialise in film screenplays.

Make a polite phone call and ask them what their policy is, and on the type of scripts they are interested in. Certain Agencies are more geared to developing new talent, even people without previous production credits. Some provide a reading service.

2. Write a clear and very simple letter. Simple – not ten pages.
Do not e-mail it, unless you check first that it’s OK.
Do not fax it.
Describe what you’ve written briefly, and explain if you have credible credits previously, and what you realistically hope for your work.
Briefly – not pages. A good Agent will know from this letter whether or not they’re interested in you. They read that many letters, and that many scripts, that they’ll know from experience whether you’re worth investing in or not.
If the Agent is interested, they will ask to read the work – a feature length script is the norm – and if they’re still interested after that, they will probably invite you in for a chat.
Agents will probably receive between 20-40 scripts a week, and will choose to read two.
Work it out yourself.
Bigger agencies can get 3000 scripts a year.
They will look only at those which have been forwarded to them by reliable contacts in Production companies, or screenplays which have been ‘optioned’. An option is in itself no guarantee. Some truly dreadful film scripts have been optioned, others are going nowhere.

Do not: write a zany letter, or a one-liner which tells them nothing about the work.

3. Do your own research, and know the market and as much about the film business as you can.

Read Screen International or Variety. Find out about what companies have what films on their slate. Know where your own film fits in, and what movies it shares themes or other elements with. Better agencies, such as Jill Foster Ltd, produce a guide every few weeks called ‘Who’s looking for what’.
Research extends to knowing what an Agent doesn’t want.
Sci-fi and Period drama is expensive to produce, and will not be picked up by some Agents.
Be realistic.
There is a need for low budget dramas, strong human interest stories with three-dimensional characters who hold the public’s interest and empathy.
Yet again, think of the recent Danish movies and why they work.
It’s doesn’t hurt to know the demographics of who your film’s for.
Don’t be lazy.

4. Good Agencies will want to develop your writing, and your career.
They’ll take the long-term view on you. They like writers, and are actively looking for new talent, people with something original to say, people who’ve found their ‘voice’.
Such Agencies will not be interested in adaptations on your first approach. They will say no to writing partnerships.
They want evidence that You can write.
The Rod Hall Agency, which represents the writers of The Full Monty, Billy Eliot, Mrs Brown, is an example of a specialist agency which is particularly open and writer-friendly (to their clients).

They have the ear of UK film and TV producers and broadcasters, and their US counterparts. They have good relationships with all the people who matter, and will place you with a Hollywood Agent if it’s in your interests.

5. The most important thing for you to concentrate on is your writing.
If you really have nothing to say, if you’re copying the latest gangster fad – then don’t send it to an Agent. They won’t even bother being annoyed. They just won’t read it – and they’ll be right.

Have the guts to say something new – something relevant.
Read screenplays. Watch movies. Be original.

The Agent.
What does he or she want?
Something fresh – something new.
To make contact with your characters, and feel what they feel. To be taken into your story.
The Agent will make you money, and knows how to plan out your career so that you can be ‘a writer’ – really – as your job.

6. Money.
As a cub, a first timer, you will probably be getting paid
£50,000 for your script.
This may sound a lot, or not a lot of money.
For 50K you’ll write the first draft, then revisions. Then a second draft, with revisions.
After that there’s the Writer’s cut off – where the Producer can get someone else in to write it.

Some Producers won’t give you the second bite at the cherry.
Some Agents will insist on it.

Every Agent is different. Every project is different. Every writer is different.
It’s up to you to go out there and prove to a good Agency that they should risk their time, money, and reputation on You.
One last thing: No means NO.

Useful web-sites on who and what Agents are looking for/ aren’t looking for: www.rodhallagency.com & www.bbc.co.uk/blast

 

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 92 in 2003.

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From the Archive: Interview with Brendan Gleeson and writer/director director John Michael McDonagh on ‘The Guard’.

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In 2011, John Michael McDonagh’s debut feature The Guard was awarded Best Irish Feature at the Galway Film Fleadh. To coincide with our coverage of this year’s Fleadh, here’s a chance to check out Emmet O’Brien‘s interview with Brendan Gleeson and writer/director director John Michael McDonagh, which featured in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 138, 2011.

An unusual mix of old-fashioned values with some decidedly un-PC humour, The Guard is one of the year’s most surprising films. Sharp tongued and engaging, the story of a clever if uncouth Garda, Gerry Boyle, and his battle against drug dealers and corruption, is a great example of contemporary Irish cinema. With a satirical sweep, it enjoys poking fun at the concept of an American cop film but is observed through an undeniably Irish filter. Not as jarring as it could be, the film is a consistently engaging and well-balanced piece which has gone down well in Cannes and at Sundance. It shares the anarchic spirit of the finest of Irish Crime Cinema, like older films such as I Went Down (another Gleeson project) to the more recent triumphs of In Bruges (a movie made by John Michael McDonagh’s brother). I caught up with the director and his leading man to discuss black comedy and how even a simple story of cops and robbers can shed light on much deeper themes, all the while keeping it fresh and darkly comic.

The Western as a genre looms over the piece, its tropes fairly evident. People are always aware of that iconography even at a subconscious level – did that inform the writing?

John Michael McDonagh: That’s one of the key themes of the film, that Boyle is the small-town sheriff and the bad guys have ridden into town. That’s why I wanted to capture that landscape and the music, and use Calexico’s score to bring a Sergio Leone/Ennio Morricone tone to the whole thing. Audiences know the rhythms of the Western, that this plot is going to build to the shoot-out, the climatic gunfight. They know the undercurrents and the subtext so you have that framework. It’s up to you to then surprise them with dialogue or character.

Brendan Gleeson: Western imagery permeates everyone’s sense of the world – of a certain generation anyway, once you have that culturally placed and anchored properly. Boyle joined the Guards thinking he’d be Gary Cooper. He maintains a notion of the challenges he wants to face, which is a very Western concept. The final shoot-out, continues that idea of the cowboy who isn’t afraid to go out in the fight.

Boyle is quite a complex character. A simple surface reading would be that he is a bigot but there’s much more going on there. Has audience reaction to him surprised you?

John Michael: I’ve been hugely surprised that some people have come away from the film labelling him as just a racist, ignoring key scenes elsewhere in the story. They’ve completely missed the point. He’s an equal opportunity misanthrope. He has a W.C. Fields type of outlook. If you have scenes that set up a character one way and then undercut it with a scene of him discussing Russian literature with his mother, then that’s a clue that there’s more going on with this character than you may initially think.

Brendan: For me this film is primarily a character study. It’s all left a little cryptic. You do get to know him but I don’t think you’d be able to predict him anymore than you could at the start of the film, which is pretty cool. There’s a feeling of limbo to him but he still has great integrity and he prods others to see if they have that same integrity. He’ll come at you in a way you’d never expect. There’s a certain amount of Columbo-style investigating with him and he looks to the backward traditions. Maybe that makes him a lonely character, holding onto old ideals of nobility. The depth of his stoicism is astonishing and people needlessly focus on the politically incorrect side of him at the cost of the whole character.

There’s a great economy to the script. In one short scene you set out the three very distinctive villains of the piece with a conversation about their favourite philosophers. Not something you usually see in an Irish crime thriller.

John Michael: My intention was to think, what do you normally see and then to write the opposite, to subvert wherever and whatever you can. Villains are always shouting and swearing at each other in this type of film so I thought let them have a measured conversation about philosophy and the main villain of the piece was trying to bring that idea a step forward. Liam Cunningham’s character doesn’t really want anything, like bad guys normally do. He’s just kind of bored. I knew I’d need more than one villain so I hit upon having three and you had to decide how to make each one unique. When you’re dealing with just one guy then you always have non-descript henchmen. We didn’t want that. Each of these guys could be the main villain in their own movie and it made it much more interesting to write.

Brendan: It’s not often you get three villains discussing Nietzsche (laughs). It’s hilarious but in a way they’re not the real nemesis. Gerry doesn’t feel threatened by them because they can’t really get him. As villains he’s way beyond them and his enemy is more an ennui and a fear of disengaging, of pulling away from this world.

In some ways they’re a MacGuffin [plot device] to get his arc going.

Brendan:He’s grateful to them for arriving, because he finally has a challenge he can rise to.

Whereas the FBI agent is more of a counterpart – ideologically if not personally.

John Michael: With Don Cheadle’s character, Everett, he’s sort of an archetype for Boyle to bang his head against but even there we tried to invest his character with some quirks – the sugar cubes he has, and the fact that his kids are named after members of the Black Panthers. Little moments like that because there was only so much you could do with a character like that to give him a separate identity.

The way the relationship builds between Everett and Boyle is quite organic.

Brendan: In America they really followed Don’s character. He was their way into the humour of the piece. His reactions against Boyle confirmed what they were hearing from some of the riskier dialogue. Americans are more conservative than us so a lot of Boyle’s jokes were met with disbelief or a ‘Did he just say what I thought he did?’ type of reaction. They access Gerry through Everett.

What I like is how there’s not really a resolution between them. It reminds of a scene in Down by Law (Jim Jarmusch, 1986) where the characters go to shake hands and Tom Waits pulls it away and it’s a real moment between them. They have closeness due to the journey they’ve been on. Don even asked me at one point ‘do these people even like each other?’ (laughs).
So you can share an intense experience but that doesn’t mean you’re suddenly best friends.

Let’s discuss the cross pollination of taking an American procedural character and placing him in a quirky Irish town. Was that the initial drive for doing the film?

John Michael: Well the concept was let’s take a CSI and totally fuck with it. I hate those shows, and it perpetuates the myth that with all this technology and equipment you can solve crimes. It’s all a lie. Boyle hates any modern technology like that, mobile phones or computers. A lot of that comes out of my own hatred for movies that lean too heavily on technology. I hate it when there’s a cut to people on a laptop or fingers tapping away. It’s lazy; you should find a different way to communicate that sort of information. It should be more cinematic.

Brendan: Speaking of cinematic, there is such a fusion of genres in this. I think the sense of place is vital to maintaining that. Seeing the little touches of Connemara tells you where the picture lies. The genres become mixed because the viewpoint is mixed. The perspective of that place encompasses the different styles, the crime film, the Western, the black comedy and that’s what makes it possible for all these things to work together. That sense of community. It’s important that when we make films here we’re not afraid to take things actually from here to add to the film, the things that aren’t put up as touristy or sold as commodities but just the more genuine touches. It should reflect a way we look at the world even if it’s good, bad or indifferent.

John Michael: You’re getting people into the cinemas with what they think will be a ‘buddy cop’ formula and hopefully the finished product will surprise them with all these different aspects and that sense of surprise gives a bigger reaction.

There is a stylized quality to it that to me brings to mind Twin Peaks, or Fargo – small-town idiosyncrasies.

John Michael: I don’t mind hearing that at all. I love David Lynch. There’s a constant undercurrent of menace to his work that I enjoy a great deal. And in ’70s movies, the investment in character would give this great sense of melancholy and the whole film would have more resonance.

Brendan: It may be up beyond what is strictly true but you know the qualities here are based on truth. It’s very real, the hilarity of normal people. Fargo did a great job of getting inside a cultural identity. I know it’s exaggerated but you could only write it if you know it, if you lived it.

The timelessness of The Guard is a strong asset to the film.

Brendan: John is very clever in retaining that timelessness. The way the set is dressed, the old telephones and, in the film’s most iconic moment, Boyle has an old Garda dress uniform. It keeps the setting vague, the way it should be.

John Michael: Those old phones are making a comeback. Like vinyl, he puts on an old Chet Baker record in one of the scenes, and these old things always come back and I didn’t want the film to be dated in any way. When you see that in a film, it takes you out of it. You can become too distracted by that stuff and the story suffers.

Speaking of distractions, the Daniel O’Donnell poster in the background in Gerry’s house was a nice touch.

Brendan: Yeah I wasn’t so sure about that!

John Michael: (laughs) Well we decided since that was a heavy and violent scene that Boyle looking at the poster is like addressing his own conscience. Strange to say it but Daniel O’Donnell’s the conscience of our film!

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From the Archive: Saoirse Ronan

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Jason O’Mahony talks to the talented Saoirse Ronan about her already impressive list of acting credits and her role in Neil Jordan’s latest vampire tale, Byzantium.

 

One of the brightest stars of the Irish film firmament must surely be Saoirse Ronan, the young Irish actress who came to worldwide attention in 2007’s Atonement.

 

Ronan was at the Kerry Film Festival recently to pick up the Maureen O’Hara Award, which is presented annually to a lady that has excelled in film. Ronan is in good company with Oscar®-winning actresses Brenda Fricker and Juliette Binoche picking up the Award in 2008 and 2010 respectively, and writer and director Rebecca Miller and actress Fionnula Flanagan receiving it in 2009 and 2011.

 

‘It’s a real honour to win an award like this, particularly one that’s named after such an iconic person,’ says Ronan. ‘Maureen has had a massive influence on Irish actresses and especially on young Irish actresses. She achieved so much at such a young age and went on to have a very distinguished career.’

 

It’s certainly no leap of faith to suggest Ronan will achieve as much in her career. She’s already picked up Oscar® and Golden Globe nominations for her role as Briony Tallis, the troubled young 13-year-old in Atonement and has won an IFTA Award in each of the last five years for Atonement, Death Defying Acts, The Lovely Bones, The Way Back and Hanna. It’s hard to believe she’s only just turned 18!

 

Film Title: Atonement

Atonement

The success, however, has clearly not gone to her head. She comes across as a wonderfully down-to-earth young lady and laughs off any talk of imitating the iconic O’Hara. ‘I’ve been very lucky so far, but Maureen is a legend. I’m a massive fan of her work; The Quiet Man, for example, is just brilliant filmmaking; a real classic. And for any Irish actress to be involved in a film that was so huge, well, it’s a real proud moment for other Irish actresses and, I suppose, for all Irish people.’

 

Ronan will next appear in Neil Jordan’s Byzantium, playing a 200-year-old ‘sucreant’, or vampire, trapped in the body of a teenage girl. ‘Neil is amazing to work with; he’s quite humble as a director. He doesn’t want to step on the toes of actors and he has such a respect for what they do. He allows them to make their own decisions,’ says Ronan. ‘He’s great with the actors, whenever you need him he’s unreservedly there for you yet he’ll also stand back and allow you to make your own choices.’

 

Such generosity of spirit in directors is important to Ronan. In fact, she sees the actor/director relationship as key to both her work and her decision-making process when choosing her roles. ‘Overall, I would say the single most important thing to me when deciding on a script is my relationship with the director,’ she says. ‘Obviously the script definitely needs to be strong or, at the very least, have the potential to be fantastic once it’s been polished. I think that’s an important point because even if the script isn’t quite there from the very start it can be refined and, as actors, we can bring something to it, especially if you’re working with a strong director who is open to ideas.’

 

These ideas often come about through the rehearsal process, which is very close to Ronan’s heart, ‘I enjoy doing rehearsals because you get to spend time with the other actors and with your director. You’re bouncing about from costume fittings to dialect lessons to reading through scenes and it really feels like the entire project is coming together in those few weeks. You get very enthusiastic during rehearsals.

 

‘One of the things that first struck me about Neil was the amount of questions he asked us. As we were rehearsing, the finer points in the story were still being worked out. We’d go over a scene and he’d look to the actors and genuinely ask, “What do you think of that? Do you think that’s how it should be?” He always wanted to get other people’s opinions. He’s very generous like that, he wants the project to work as well as it can and is very open to feedback, which is a wonderful environment for an actor.’

 

It takes a director at the very top of his game to be so open and collaborative and Ronan is lucky in having worked with some of the very best directors in the business. Peter Jackson cast her in The Lovely Bones on the strength of seeing an audition tape. ‘That was a complete shock, it had never happened before. We sent off the tape and were thrilled when we got the call,’ says Ronan. ‘Making that tape, actually, was one of those times where the emotion totally took over. My dad does all my audition tapes with me and directs them and we did one of the scenes where Suzie is in heaven and talking about the horrific things that happened to her: the abduction, the rape. It was really harrowing; the emotion just flowed and I was shaking when we had finished the tape. It was a fantastic experience and it must have worked because I got the part!’

Hanna CMYK

 Hanna

While other actors find it difficult to summon deep wells of emotion, Ronan can seemingly tap it at will and is equally adept at playing a genetically modified killing machine in Hanna as she is at playing an abducted and frightened young girl in The Lovely Bones. Her roles have encompassed a wide gamut of emotions that would tax an actress twice her age but she’s as joyfully down to earth about it as she is about everything and is happy to talk about her process.

 

‘I tend to go over things in great detail the night before important scenes, and make sure I’ve learned my lines. I’ll always go through things in many different ways in preparation but, on the day, I prefer to do it on my own. It’s sometimes good to go through the lines with the other actors, particularly if a line isn’t sinking in. But I do prefer to go off to a quiet place on my own to work on the emotional core of the character,’ she says. ‘I go off on my own, I don’t say anything, I don’t look at anything but I do this thing where I kind of pace backwards and forwards and that seems to really focus my mind, almost like a moving meditation.’

 

And, despite many of her characters going to quite dark places, she finds the work immensely gratifying. ‘It’s very satisfying to do scenes like that; to allow yourself to feel such deep emotions and to become totally involved in the character,’ she says.

 

‘I love doing scenes full of trauma, I like doing upsetting scenes because it’s an event for me. I just did a film, How I Live Now, and I played a girl that’s a spoiled brat. So it was actually great for me to be able to just let myself go. Obviously, I don’t have a life that’s in any way similar to hers but I could let out all the anger and all the frustration through her. So I found it cathartic.’

 

How I Live Now is directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) and details the story of American teen, Daisy (Ronan), who is sent to live with English cousins on the eve of the breakout of World War III.

 

Ronan also likes to do a number of different takes: ‘I’d hate to have only one or two takes to get it right because if you know the director is going to allow you to try it a few different ways it really frees you up to try different things; it also relaxes you.

 

‘And, generally speaking, even if the director is happy with it after a few takes, I still like to try a few more just to really get it as good as it can be. I mean, I love doing scenes where the takes will go on for quite a long time because it really frees you up to make it as natural as it can be.’

 

Ronan draws inspiration from other naturalistic actors and is a huge fan of Ed Harris, with whom she worked on The Way Back and William Hurt (whom she worked with on the upcoming The Host, the latest film to be made from a book by Twilight’s Stephenie Meyer). She’s also a big fan of Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Meryl Streep.

 

Saoirse Ronan is a breath of fresh air, a young actress who looks back in such awe at the canon of acting greats that it keeps her grounded about her own substantial achievements. Maureen O’Hara paid a glowing tribute at the ceremony. ‘I’m thrilled that Saoirse Ronan will be honoured with the Maureen O’Hara Award this year. She is a remarkable actress who has given so many magical performances at such a young age. She truly represents the very finest that young Ireland has to offer. Her talent and dedication to her craft are an inspiration to all our wonderfully talented young actors pursuing their dreams in film. Her work and theirs makes me so proud because we’re the best in the world. It bodes very well for the future of the Irish film industry but, more than that, it speaks of the inherent strength in young Irish people and promises a bright future for the whole country.’

 

And with that Ronan bounced up to collect the award, won over the entire audience with her natural charm and returned to her seat next to her mom and dad, the accomplished actor Paul Ronan, as seemingly unaware of the effect she has on the audience as she is of her staggering talent.

 

Maureen O’Hara was right; with young Irish people like Saoirse Ronan the future looks bright indeed.

 

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 143 in 2012.

 

 

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From the Archive: Interview with Colin Farrell

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Paul Farren caught up with Colin Farrell and talked to him about Phone Booth and working with Joel Schumacher.

 

Tell us a little bit about Phone Booth.

 

It’s about a guy, a publicist who has just lost the run of himself, buying his own hype a little too much and this bird he wants to bang, but he’s married and he never calls the bird from his mobile phone because his wife checks the bill. So he calls her from the phone booth before three o’clock every day. One day he calls and she says again she’s busy, he puts the phone down and it starts to ring and he picks it up thinking she might be trying to three sixty nine him. He answers the phone and a dude on the other end says isn’t it funny the phone rings and it could be anybody but it still has to be answered. He claims to be a sniper in one of the nearby buildings and says he will kill me if I hang up the phone. The next hour and fifteen minutes is about me and him getting closer and closer, but still worrying if he’s going to pull the trigger.

 

It was a really quick shoot, wasn’t it?

 

It was shot in twelve days, which by normal standards sounds like looper shooting. It was a fairly low budget and we rehearsed for three weeks. Which you never get to do on film.

 

Rehearsing like that must have been a bit of a treat?

 

Ah yeah it was great, it was fuckin’ deadly. We sat around the table for a week and a half talking through the script, which was a great script. We knew we only had twelve days to shoot so when we finally got down to the street we wanted to know what was happening. There were fifteen actors, three assistant directors, Joel and me. We talked about it and changed little bits and then took it out onto the street. We had a phone booth, so we could rehearse around it, cars parked, people moving around. It was very obvious where I was going to be: I was in the fuckin’ phone booth (laughs).

 

Your American accent seems flawless. Does it take a lot of work?

 

Thanks, yeah I prepped with a voice coach. Usually I like to do three or four weeks before a job and start workin’ on it. A few hours every day just working on the script, and working on sounds. Then listening to tapes of Americans that represent where that particular character is from. Just practice, practice, practice.

 

Tell us about working with Joel Schumacher.

 

It was a blast. I loved working with Joel. I met him first when he was meeting a load of actors for Tigerland and I got a call “Do you want to go to London and meet Joel Schumacher?” and of course I’m going to do it. So I met Schumacher for three minutes and I left the office thinking, “That’s a fuckin’ waste of me time.” Then he called from America, I went over and had two weeks of general meetings and read for it again and got it. After that came Phone Booth. I can’t wait to see it, I can’t fuckin’ wait, to see if it works.

 

Have you achieved much fame in the States since Tigerland?

 

Nobody knows who the fuck I am!

 

How do you think you’ll handle the fame game when it does kick in?

 

I’ve no idea. It’s not something I’d know how to prepare for even if I gave a fuck about trying to prepare for it.

 

Are you living in the States much?

 

No, no not at all, I don’t have to go. This is how lucky I am. I’ve skipped so many rungs on the ladder that I don’t have to submerge myself in Hollywood and Hollywood society because I’ve had so many opportunities out of nowhere. I can go for a week and do a load of meetings then get the fuck out of there and come back here and there’s a great thing called Fedex as well. I get scripts sent from L.A. and I read them in Irishtown, so I’m lucky that way. All you’d end up doin’ is just going to parties and getting in trouble (laughs).

 

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 105 in 2002

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From the Archive: Paddy Breathnach Interview

Shrooms-still1

Shrooms director Paddy Breathnach talks to Sheena Sweeney about his influences, the mushrooming Irish film industry and the magic of a little encouragement.

 

Five American college students arrive in Ireland to go on a camping ‘trip’ with their old college buddy Jack.  According to Jack, Ireland has the best magic mushrooms in the world, but in the best horror-flick tradition, psychedelic hallucinations soon turn into premonitions of death and teens start dropping like flies…

 

Paddy, you say you were really keen to make a horror movie – why was that?

 

I think ever since I did Ailsa a long time back, one of the things I was very interested in, even though it’s a long way from horror, was creating an atmosphere and a sense of characters in isolation. Moving with characters on their own, tracking them and having a very close connection with them, that’s something that horrors do all the time and I suppose that’s what I was interested in. It’s one of the genres that the images are often very beautiful and provocative, in a way that you don’t always get in drama.  Sometimes drama can be beautiful in a more picturesque way, whereas horrors can have a melancholy about them or have tones that you might not get a chance to explore otherwise.

 

 

There hasn’t been a really successful horror movie here yet, although Isolation (Billy O’Brian) was one of the best. Why do you think that is?

 

I haven’t seen Isolation so I can’t really comment on that and whether it cracked it or not, but I suppose, you know, it’s not just horror it’s a wide range of things. In any movie industry anywhere, for any ten or fifteen films that get made, one of them cracks it, one of them is good.  And the reality is that still not that many films are made in Ireland – Irish filmmaking is still quite young.  In Hollywood you make a film – for better or worse – and you get all that received wisdom.  You can react to it and say, ‘I don’t agree with you, I’m going to subvert that and go a different way,’ or else you can accept it and use it, but either way it helps clarify things and it pushes you on. At home I think we’re still at the stage where there isn’t received wisdom – we’re still reaching for those sorts of things.  But I think all these things are gradually getting better and better.  But why there haven’t been that many successful horrors…I just don’t think there’ve been that many attempts.  You had Dead Meat a few years ago and then Isolation…

 

About the Irish film industry, what do you think about it now, do you think things have begun to change over the last while?

 

Well, I haven’t seen everything but I think maybe a few things, you know, Lenny Abrahamson’s stuff (Adam and Paul, Garage) and John Carney (Once) in a funny way maybe, because all those people have been around for a while, they’ve been part of doing stuff for seven, eight, nine years, and now they’ve done a few things, learnt a few things, they’re coming back with a bit of wisdom. There’s some experience being brought to things.  And maybe it’s a good time in that sense.  I hate the politics of these things…for me the film business is a collaborative thing between writers, directors, producers, actors, with everyone bringing something to the table. Possibly, at the moment directors are bringing a little more to the table or maybe there’s a confidence in the directors.

 

Do you think it has anything to do with changes in the Film Board or anything like that?

 

You know, I think…I think in the last couple of years it’s been a very positive thing, and maybe a couple of years ago it would have been quite different.  And I’d definitely say Simon Perry (the then Head of the Irish Film Board) has a sense of the filmmaker about him. One of the good things about being in Ireland is that we’re quite critical of ourselves, we’re hard on ourselves and we don’t suffer fools gladly.  But maybe the other side of that, and I’d be one of the worst culprits for this in some ways, is that positive energy and encouragement can have an amazing effect. When you actually try to stimulate someone and put your arm around their shoulder and say, ‘listen that’s great what you did.  Well done.  What are you thinking of doing next?’  It’s amazing how that can push somebody on, maybe someone who’s uncertain about where they’re going. I think there’s more of that now, there’s a nice energy at the moment.

 

Do you live in LA now?

 

Well I’ve spent the last six months here, but I’m actually coming back to Ireland in two weeks time.  I might come back over here next year, it depends on the strike that’s looming here, a writer’s strike. It’s amazing how it affects the whole town and the industry, suddenly a lot of discussions stop happening, studios are sort of preparing for a possible lock-out.  I mean none of these things might happen, but everything’s kind of moving on a daily basis. It’s quite an interesting time here but not a great for setting anything up.

 

Now, obviously your movie has quite an American focus. Would you say your idea of success is to do well in Hollywood? 

 

To be honest with you, I kind of like eclectic things. One of the next things I’m planning is an Irish language Western set in the 1690’s, so that certainly doesn’t fit the Hollywood model. Then one of the things I’ve been thinking about doing for quite a while, which I’m doing with Mark O’Halloran (writer of Adam and Paul and Garage), is a musical about transvestites set in Cuba. So I’ve quite a lot of different things that I do, but one thing I found  in particular after Man About Dog that did very well in Ireland but didn’t travel, was that good international sales are very important. You need to have some degree of commercial success so you can raise money to do another film later on and being able to trade on yourself as a director maybe lets you do things that aren’t as commercial. And particularly in the horror genre, I think the fact that this was an American cast, just opened up foreign sales.

 

I counted seven different Financial sources in the credits for the film. What was the budget?

 

The budget was about four million, but I couldn’t tell you all the sources.

 

The horror genre is often analysed as being about ‘Otherness.’ A monstrous figure can stand for things like sexual deviation in Silence of the Lambs or femininity in films like Cat People. Did you have anything like that in mind when you were working on this? 

 

Well I don’t want to start talking about it too much because I don’t want to give away the plot. I think in this the otherness is the projection of fears that are based on stories.  Then the question ‘are the sources of your fears real or not?’ is posed, and I think the horror and tension are caused by the uncertainty of that.

 

And the idea that genre films are about trying to resolve a  ‘Difference’ of one sort of another…

 

In a way the film deconstructs that idea of difference.  It’s like: what’s the horror in the end?  In a sense the Otherness is a reflection of you.  That’s really what’s happening in it, the horror is you…In some ways it’s not strictly a horror film – it’s actually a mystery. The language of it, and the icons are horror but its structure is more like a mystery suspense, you know what I mean?

 

I do know what you mean, but I don’t know if I would agree…and this leads me into another question. I read you looked to Asian films for your influences and that really did come through.  And I love that school of horror…

 

I think they’re very interesting, and while I don’t think that I completely tapped into it, I think did manage to get part of it. But I think they do two things really, which is that they create horror in a modern environment in terms of the textures and fabrics of a modern house, phones and modern communications where the ghost is literally in the machine, and I think that’s great…

 

Sorry to interrupt you, but just on what you were saying about it being a mystery, the reason I’m saying I don’t know if I would agree, is that I would see it much more in the vein of those Asian movies where it’s not really mystery as much as fear, it’s an attempt to create a sense of pure fear. I think it’s quite a Lynchian thing as well…like when Tara (played by Lindsey Haun) looks around from behind a tree down the pathway to see if she can see the Black Brother, yes, it’s mysterious but it’s more a sense of….

 

Dread

 

Exactly….

 

You sort of know you’re going to see this thing and this dread reaches you.  Yeah.  The other thing is – generally a lot of modern horrors do it, but the Asians do it very well – and that’s playing on female vulnerability by having female protagonists but then sometimes connecting that to rage. I think that’s an interesting thing.  It’s something that’s often been done in masculine films in the past and I’ve seen it in female roles in contemporary horrors, like The Exorcism of Emily Rose and stuff like that. Where you have that idea of physical rage and very intense fear, so you’re seeing female roles where they’re not controlled, you know what I mean?  Outside a very mannered, controlled social role, you’re able to lift the lid off the box. I think it’s interesting that in a lot of contemporary horrors women haven’t been afforded that kind of emotional rage…

 

Absolutely, because women are traditionally seen just as a function of the male lead….

 

Yeah, in the past, those going to see horrors would have been male and that’s not necessarily the case anymore. It might be the case in terms of the aficionados, the absolute anoraks of horror, but the female part of the audience has shot up a lot.

 

So that’s the reason you would explore the idea of female protagonists rather than you being a feminist?

 

[Laughs] No, no.  Not that, but it’s just an observation about the Asian films…

 

And what Asian films in particular would have resonated with you?

 

I think some of the main ones Dark Water, Ring, The Grudge, and Two Sisters as well, in terms of atmosphere and design.  And then Onibaba in terms of the visual side, and then there’s a whole series of ones like Whispering Stairs, and lots of the kind of B-movie, schlockier ones, that aren’t necessarily great films, but have lots of great sequences in them.  So I watched a lot of those for the atmosphere.

 

I noticed in the production notes that Lindsey Haun said when you were casting her you sent her I Went Down by way of familiarising her with your work.  Is that your favourite amongst your own films?

 

Well in different ways, but probably Ailsa and I Went Down. I have certain affection for them…

 

Were they good to you, those films?

 

I think different films have different strengths.  For example in Ireland, Man About Dog did critically badly, but for me I got a great kick out of it because people went to see it. Some people who’d never been to see an Irish film went to see it and it just gave them a laugh and they enjoyed it and that for me is an important thing. And by that I don’t mean that everything has to do hugely well at the box office, but if it has a resonance, if it finds an audience that’s a great thing. In terms of Man About Dog as an action comedy, I think it’s quite well put together.  But probably, the things you do earliest you develop an affection for.

 

You’ve mentioned Man About Dog a few times, did that hurt when it wasn’t received as well as you might have hoped?

 

Em. It annoys you sometimes, but because it did well at the box office it kind of mediates that a lot.

 

But do you not have the sense as a filmmaker, that you just want other people to like it? 

 

It’s not the approval, what I would say is that you want it to be treated fairly…

 

And you felt that that wasn’t the case?

 

I think at times it wasn’t, because I think sometimes it wasn’t reviewed for what it was.

 

Within its genre you mean?

 

Yeah. It was very specifically for a young male audience, like films like Road Trip and American Pie and all that kind of thing. I’m not saying it was the same as those films, but it was in that area and I don’t think it was treated quite in the same way.  And I think maybe there’s an expectation in Ireland for an Irish film that’s going out, that it will please everybody and that it will catch everybody in a certain way.  And I think maybe there was a disappointment that it wasn’t another I Went Down. By all means, I’m sure a lot of comments about it might be very true, but I think quite a few missed what the point of it was.  And I think also we were maybe a little bit unlucky, because I think some of the reviewers who’d seen it and liked it didn’t end up being the ones that reviewed it in the end.  So you know, it’s a numbers game. Out of five to ten significant reviews, two of those could’ve gone a different way. Then, you know, it wouldn’t have felt quite as harsh.  But you make your movie, you learn from it, and you move on.

 

Are you saying that if the Irish film community want the standard of Irish film to improve they have to stop viewing them as peculiarly Irish, and view them on an international scale where something like that would be compared to American Pie as opposed to I Went Down?

 

Or Intermission or another Irish film…

 

Right, yeah, something within the same genre as opposed to within the body of work of the filmmaker or Irish cinema in general.

 

I mean Jesus Christ, you know there’s a very wide range of films I might enjoy depending on what mood I’m in. Equally, in terms of the filmmaking community, Damien O’Donnell might make something brilliant in a way that I could never do.  Like I think Heartlands was a fantastic film…

 

And finally, you seemed very comfortable with the subject matter of Shrooms, did you ever have a period in your life where you did a lot of mushrooms?

 

No [laughs] I didn’t.  But there were other people involved in the project who definitely supplemented my knowledge…

 

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 119 in 2007.

 

 

 

 

 

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