Liam O’Neill takes Film Ireland from glen to glen and talks about his short film.
Several years ago, shortly after my dad passed away, we were going through the family home in Chicago, cleaning it out and preparing it for sale. It’s an unsettling experience going through a lifetime of objects – some of which you puzzle over why they were kept and others that unleash a flood of long shelved memories.
In a closet I found my childhood violin. And finding that resurfaced a wish my late mother had that one day I would play Danny Boy for her on the violin. It wasn’t a demand or something that she held over me as an un-kept promise, she was far too gentle a woman for that kind of malarkey, but the memory of that simple desire; to have her son play for her, her favourite song, made my heart ache.
It didn’t work out. My violin playing made our dog howl and I just didn’t have the patience for it. I wanted to be outside playing baseball; not torturing the whole family with the cacophony that I mustered from my bow.
After having had a good long look at the tiny child’s violin, I gave it to my brother who’s a musician and instrument maker. Then with the pressures of life, family and finances weighing upon me, I moved on.
Several years later, I decided that I wanted to shift my career somewhat from producing back to writing and directing. I was searching for ideas for short films. The first one I came up with was Lost and Found which we made in 2015. It was successful enough that I decided to press on and I started to look for the next idea.
The memory of finding that tiny violin and the resulting pangs of loss spurred me to write Danny Boy. What if, in the end, the promise could be kept?
The script came out pretty easily at first – too easily. So I went back and reshaped it several times. I finally changed the child from a boy to a girl and the mother to a father. I thought that would help me distance myself somewhat emotionally from the material so I could be a bit more rigorous about my approach. It seemed to work.
Once I was happy -or as happy as one can be with a script – I started sending it out to various competitions. I got a ‘no’ everywhere it went. Disappointed, but being fairly stubborn and thick-skinned from years in the business, I decided ‘f**k ‘em, what do they know’ – we would make this using our own resources. Crowdfunding was an integral part of the financing of Lost and Found. If needs be, we could bypass the usual funding routes for short films
Meanwhile, I came across another short script called ‘Kathleen’ by John Morton. It is a ‘kind of’ love story with a neat twist at the end. I thought ‘I’d really like to make this one too’. John and I came to an agreement as to how to proceed and I had a second short film and – or so I thought – only enough money to make one of them.
Lost and Found was sold to Shortscreen – we banked that sale towards Danny Boy. One of the Indiegogo backers of Lost and Found liked that film so much that when I asked him for help towards financing another short he generously put his hand in his pocket. With that gesture we had the bulk of our financing.
I showed the two scripts to my filmmaker friend and regular collaborator Kevin Hughes. I hoped he would jump at one of them and help me make up my mind which one to shoot first.
He liked them both and agreed to shoot them for me. But I was torn. I knew if we shot one of them then getting the energy and resources together to get the second one made would probably be beyond me, beyond the available finance and beyond the scope of the favours I could ask from cast and crew to help get them made.
Kevin, being an eminently practical chap, suggested that we shoot them back to back. And that was what we did. Over six days in the dead of winter.
We were also fortunate that Kathleen had won the Waterford Film Festival Short Screenplay award a few years ago and that award came with free-of-charge access to the Waterford FilmLab’s equipment cache for a working week. That helped a lot. FilmBase chipped in with some gear and Carlow IT provided us with a cadre of terrifically enthusiastic trainees.
Not wanting to produce the film myself, I cast my net wide for a producer but either someone wasn’t available or they were looking to be paid a substantial chunk of the budget to take it on. In the end, I shared the producing responsibilities with my wife Annabel Konig. She is the most organised person I know and she knows her way around a set as a production designer and visual artist. Between the two of us we pulled together the logistics of shooting in a remote rural village – accommodation, transportation, equipment, etc.
We got so much local support from our friends and neighbours in the Rathanna, County Carlow area. The cast and crew were accommodated and welcomed into the homes of our friends, we were able to use the village hall as a base for the production and the local marching band and even the Sunday evening dance group were all inducted into the shoot.
We made sure all the locations were near to each other and that there would be no time wasted getting from set to set. The production side went remarkably smoothly – but it was as the result of a lot of fretting and advance planning.
As a director, casting is always the focus. Casting, casting, casting. It is a cliché but casting really is over 50% of the gig. In Danny Boy the challenge was that we were going to see Maggie, the out-of-tune violinist, progress from being a child to an adult – over the course of a ten-minute film. We were very fortunate to be able to work with the ever-enthusiastic casting director Gillian Reynolds and she really pulled the strings and we found our three Maggies. Eloise Broderick for Maggie as a child, Amy O’Donoghue as Maggie the teen, and Margarita Murphy as Maggie the grown woman. Eloise and Amy came from Gillian Oman’s brilliant Independent Theatre Workshop – the same workshop that produced the talented Lee O’Donoghue (Amy’s brother) who featured in Lost and Found and in several other recent films.
For ‘Kathleen’ the challenge was the title character. Again Gillian pulled out all the stops but we found our Kathleen quickly in the Galway-based actress Tara Breathnach. She had the right mix of fire and ice that was needed for the character.
We were delighted to be in a position to cast Denis Conway as the male lead in both Danny Boy and Kathleen. I wrote Danny Boy with Denis in mind and then adapted the role of Sean in Kathleen for him. He’s a wonderful actor with great screen presence.
The shooting was not without stress. We were mostly in pretty confined interior locations and as usual we were under time pressure. We committed ourselves to working a standard shooting day with one hour for lunch. I think this helped the crew stay rested and good natured. Whatever stress there was, was creative and helpful to getting the best we could with what we had to hand. Both films are very intimate and to an extent working in tight spaces helped to visually reinforce that intimacy.
The post has been more drawn out than planned. Danny Boy is complete and Kathleen will be finished in November. Marie-Valerie Jeantelot took on the editing of Danny Boy. She was in France for much of the process so we worked at a distance sending versions and notes back and forth.
When we had Danny Boy assembled in script order it was clear that, although the film worked as written, there was perhaps a better film in there than was immediately obvious. Marie suggested deconstructing the story to break up its linearity. I believe this approach heightened the emotional punch of the film.
One of the things we had to watch very carefully was that, while we wanted a film that would strike an emotional chord in an audience, we didn’t want it to sink into the maudlin. For many people, the song Danny Boy carries in itself a strong emotional punch and as a musical motif that runs through the story achieving a balance of emotion and distance was, I think, adeptly handled by Marie.
I will leave it to others to judge if we succeeded.
We’ve been lucky with festivals so far. IndieCork and Kerry were the first festivals to which we applied. We’ve been accepted to both. Fingers crossed they are the beginnings of a good festival run both here at home and abroad. I don’t even think about prizes. Just getting accepted into a good festival, in these days where thousands of short films are submitted to even the most humble of festivals, is prize enough. Just getting it out into the world will do nicely. I hope it finds an audience and that it touches a chord with many.
So Mom, Danny Boy, at last. This one’s for you.
Danny Boy screens at IndieCork in Programme 3 of the Irish Shorts selection @ 12.00pm on Saturday, 14th October 2017.
IndieCork runs from 8 – 15 October 2017
Danny Boy screens at the Kerry Film Festival in the RECALL – Shorts Programme @ 12.00pm on Friday, 20th October 2017.
Kerry Film Festival runs from 19 – 22 October 2017