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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