Interview: Kirsten Sheridan – on writing and her new feature, ‘Dollhouse’.

 

Kirsten Sheridan talks to Steven Galvin about her approach to writing and her feature Dollhouse, which is released in cinemas on Friday, 7th December.

Tell us about your approach to writing.

Up to this point my approach has been a little by the book. But the more writing I do, and the closer I get to the real story I’m trying to tell, the less the rules matter. The more I can trust the instinct of what is happening in the subtext of the entire story (as well as the scene), the less I need to rely on logical rules and building blocks and all the usual architecture of writing. I find these things help but they can overpower and oversimplify sometimes. I believe you need to write a good few scripts that have cracked the traditional structure so that you can then trust when to throw it out.

Do you have ‘Eureka’ moments?I definitely have moments where the characters refuse to say what I want them to say. But I’m a firm believer in something Stephen King said in his book On Writing – the muse is a basement kind of guy. In other words you only get those rare moments of eureka when you’ve procrastinated and been depressed and forced yourself to sit down and write and sweat and have gone through the whole cycle from start to finish, same time with every script. It’s a process that seems to stick and one just needs to go through the hard work to get those tiny moments of reward when everything seems to fit and flow.

When you’re writing, are you thinking of an audience?

Not specifically when writing actual scenes. But definitely before I start a story, I think of the audience. Before I embark on what will end up being some kind of emotional commitment of writing, I need to know who it’s for besides myself. And if it’s not for anyone else, then that’s fine. But I still need to know that, to manage my own expectations.

What’s your typical writing schedule?

It used to be 10am–3pm on writing days. But it has changed very recently to writing notes upon notes, moments, lines of dialogue, images, snippets of songs, etc. Anything and everything. All different pieces of the jigsaw. Letting that drift around my head for weeks. And then I lock myself away for literally entire 24- to 150-hour periods and write all in one go, sometimes 12 hours a day. I think every project requires a different approach. If you’re writing something controlled, specific and poised, your process needs to mirror that. If you’re writing something with less control, that’s more raw, then the process should mirror that.

How did the script for Dollhouse evolve?

The story idea started with a location. We had a free location of a house in Dalkey and I thought someone from The Factory should write a story based in it. Then I decided I could only ever write about the kind of teenagers who would break into a house like that. And a one-line idea came into my head. For want of a better word, I suppose, it was a tag line of sorts.

From that I wrote a 15-page treatment. Then we discussed the treatment in The Factory and I was equally encouraged and challenged into changes that dramatised it further. From that I cast the film and developed the dialogue by watching and listening to the actors in life and by doing improvs with them and interviewing them ‘in character’. I would privately write options for dialogue from each character. Then on set I would feed them back the dialogue. It became like directing live TV with multi cameras. And they would improvise. Long takes, many takes, very hard work for the actors.

You’ve written two shorts and two features – how did you find the transition from crafting a script for shorts to crafting for features?

There is very little comparison, apples and oranges. The overall structure of a feature film is so complicated at times. And the one clear theme or story has to be present in every frame, in its own way. A short is a moment in time. I think character is easier to do in features. I guess I have written two features that got made, but like every writer I have twenty scripts in a drawer that haven’t yet!

Do you write ‘what you know’?

As much as possible. That might not necessarily mean writing about a place or type of person; it’s more the theme of the film. I’m not comfortable writing genre yet. I’m still a drama person, which can be difficult in this market.

You have said that with Dollhouse you didn’t want to work with a traditional script. What were your reasons for this? And what did it bring to the final product?

I had written quite a few feature scripts and I just wanted to challenge myself. I had also done some work as a writer for hire, so I was immersed in traditional arcs and architecture. I knew I could do the traditional backstory reveals. But I thought it would be interesting to have the script only exist in the here and now. No talking about what one thinks. Not much articulating. I knew there would be certain expectations in a story about a group of kids who spend one night together. But I wanted to subvert those expectations if possible.

Because the actors didn’t have the lines to rely on, there was an energy (perhaps terror at times!) that was communicated. An edginess and unpredictability. In some way because the actors didn’t know what was going to happen next, that was translated onto the screen, so that the audience feels like there is an ‘anything can happen’ quality to the performances.

How did that work as a ‘pitch’?

It was a hard pitch because it was quite experimental and risky. It’s hard to finance something based on 15 pages and no well-known cast! So you have to keep the cost low and sell it based on visuals rather than pages.

Alongside yourself and the likes of Rebecca Daly, Juanita Wilson and Carmel Winters, there’s a strong presence of a female voice within Irish storytelling on film.

Is there? Good, if so. There needs to be more. I even find myself writing the female characters that I’ve been accustomed to seeing on screen, which are generally male projections of what a female character should be. The good wife, the moral centre of the story, the maternal instinct, etc. There is an incredible lack of complex, compelling, unique female leads. They seem watered down. Or some version of a male perspective. I think it’s so ingrained it’s almost impossible to see anymore. TV is obviously starting to have more interesting characters because they have the time to really get under the skin into the moral or emotional complexities.

What advice would you have for aspiring writers?

Write. Every day. All the time. And figure out why you are writing something. You need people to ask you questions. To challenge and push you so you discover the reasons why you are writing certain stories over and over. Or why you are changing the story you usually write. I like what Kevin Barry says – you should write as soon as you wake up. Before you become ‘online’ with phones and Facebook and the world. Before the images or thoughts or moments from the in-between land of dreams and sleep disappear.

This article features in the current Film Ireland  Winter Issue  – available now.

Dollhouse is currently in cinemas.

Share

Cinema Review: Dollhouse

 

DIR/WRI: Kirsten Sheridan • PRO: John Wallace • DOP: Colin Downey, Ross McDonnell • ED: Kirsten Sheridan • DES: Emma Lowney • Seána Kerslake, Johnny Ward, Kate Stanley Brennan, Shane Curry, Ciaran McCabe, Jack Reynor


Films about societal differences and youth culture in Irish cinema are nothing new. They’ve been covered from almost every available angle – from this year’s harrowing What Richard Did to the charming Kisses. With Kirsten Sheridan and her new film, Dollhouse, the focus is, yet again, on the gap between rich and poor amongst youths in Dublin and, as well, teenage life and experiences. The film takes place in an opulent South Dublin during a hedonistic house party. Jeannie, played by Seana Kerslake, leads a group of four inner-city youths (Shane Curry, Johnny Ward, Kate Brennan and Ciaran McCabe) into the seaside property with the intent of drinking the place dry and destroying it. The film’s dialogue is, for the most part, improvised by the actors and the whole film has an unplanned, naturalistic quality to it. Scenes are played out to a dull soundtrack with the gang becoming increasingly boisterous and drunk.

As the film progresses, it’s revealed that Jeannie has an intimate knowledge of the house and its owners and, as well, is suffering from very serious mental issues. The gang she’s surrounded herself with her are, for the most part, oblivious to this and seem uninterested in the fact that they’re destroying the house she used to live in. The film’s dramatic sequences feel unconvincing and forced; this is down to the inexperience of the actors working them and the poor script – or lack thereof. While some scenes can and do work better when improvised, here it seems that the word ‘fuck’ was added on to every sentence to make it seem convincing and real. Instead, it comes off as hollow and faked and takes the viewer out of the story completely. It’s painfully aware that the actors are trying to push the scene forward and get their own oar in whenever possible. Sheridan’s direction is manic and overuses montages to move the story along. Large chunks of the film are devoted to bland, expletive-filled conversations that don’t add anything to the film. These could have easily been cut down and edited to give the film more of a flow. Instead, the film’s uneven pacing and clunky dialogue leaves Dollhouse uninteresting and without any kind of emotional core.

Brian Lloyd

Rated 16 (see IFCO website for details)
99 mins

Dollhouse is released on 7th December 2012

Dollhouse – Official Website

Share

The Factory Announce Programme for Screen Acting 2012-2013

The Factory is pleased to announce the first ever solely dedicated year long programme in Screen Acting at The Factory beginning this September.

 

APPLICATIONS NOW OPEN FOR SEPTEMBER 2012!

 

This full-time Screen Acting Programme runs from the 24th of September 2012 to the 14th of May 2013.

 

Since its establishment in 2009 by John Carney, Lance Daly and Kirsten Sheridan, the Factory has provided training, development, studio space, post production facilities and networking opportunities for actors, directors and producers. The Factory Actors Studio is run in collaboration with leading casting director Maureen Hughes with contributions from a wide range of film industry professionals. The Factory has partnered with Screen Training Ireland and been supported by the Irish Film Board.

 

A fee of €4,950 applies with a limited number of scholarship places available.

No previous experience is required.

 

Early application deadline:        8th June 2012, Fee €30

Late application deadline:         22nd June 2012, Fee €50

 

All applicants will be reviewed and feedback given from The Factory Panel. Shortlisted applicants will be auditioned for #TheProgramme in July & August. Offers will be made on Friday the 31 August 2012.

 

To apply please send Cover Letter, CV and Headshot and Application Fee to:

The Programme,

The Factory,

35a Barrow Street,

Grand Canal Dock,

Dublin4.

Hard copies only accepted.

For further details please contact us at theprogramme@thefactory.ie, visit www.thefactory.ie or call Muireann or Claire on 01 4432319.

Share

Kirsten Sheridan’s New Film ‘Dollhouse’ To Receive World Premiere at Berlin Film festival

kirsten sheridankirsten sheridan

The prestigious Berlin Film Festival has selected Irish filmmaker Kirsten Sheridan’s latest film, Dollhouse, to screen in the Panorama section of the festival. Sheridan will attend the world premiere screening of her film at the event, the 62nd film festival in Berlin. Dollhouse, shot during 2011 in Dublin, is Sheridan’s first film as writer and director – it marks her third feature film as director.

It explores a night in the life of a group of street teens from Dublin’s inner city who break into an upper class house in Dalkey.  The break-in quickly moves into a night of frenzy, driven by a series of revelations that will leave lasting marks on each of them, and resulting in a emotional conclusion that they will carry with them.  Provocative and challenging, the film is scheduled for theatrical release in Ireland before Summer 2012.  It is the first release from The Factory, a Dublin-based creative filmmaking collective.  The film was funded by Bord Scannán na hÉireann/Irish Film Board and Lightstream Pictures. The film was produced by John Wallace, and stars Seana Kerslake, Johnny Ward, Shane Curry, Kate Stanley Brennan, Ciaran McCabe and Jack Reynor. 

‘It’s an amazing honour to have a film selected for the Berlin FilmFestival, all the team involved are really excited to have the WorldPremiere of the film at such a prestigious event,” commented Sheridan. 
”We’re aware that Berlin audiences are very receptive to international 
cinema, and we think this will be the ideal launch pad for the film 
internationally. The filmmaking process was extremely intensive, so we’re
looking forward to seeing the reaction of audiences.’

James Hickey, Bord Scannán na hÉireann / Irish Film Board Chief Executive said ‘We are delighted that Dollhouse directed by Kirsten Sheridan and featuring a host of upcoming talented Irish cast, will have such a prestigious world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival. A strong presence in Berlin and Sundance marks a excellent beginning to 2012 for Irish cinema, as the Irish film industry continues to be well represented at the highest levels on the international stage.’

The festival, considered within the industry as one of the most influential in the world, takes place between 9th – 19th February .The Panorama section at the Berlin Film Festival defines its mission as building bridges between artistic vision and commercial appeal. In the Panorama programme there are new films by renowned directors, debut films and new discoveries. The selection of films provides insight on new directions in cinema. Traditionally, ‘Auteur Films’ movies with an individual signature form the heart of the programme.

Share

Call for Submissions for Inaugural HeadsUp Movie Awards

The inaugural HeadsUp Movie Awards, which aim to encourage creative expression around mental health issues, were today launched by Sinead Kennedy and Paul Walsh of RTÉ’s Two Tube.

 

The Awards are being organised by HeadsUp, a mental health promotion project run by Rehab, with the support of RTE Two’s Two Tube and the National Office for Suicide Prevention’s “Let Someone Know” campaign.

 

The aim is to encourage young people across Ireland to create their own mini-movies around mental health stories as part of efforts to reduce stigma and develop more open and receptive attitudes around the issue.

 

Fantastic prizes are on offer with a €5,000 prize fund, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shadow a leading filmmaker or animator for a day and – in what could amount to a real break for an aspiring director – the winning entries will be showcased on national television. Entries will be judged by industry experts, including filmmaker Kirsten Sheridan of The Factory, animator Nicky Phelan of Brown Bag Films and Sheila de Courcy, Commissioning Editor RTÉ Young People’s Programmes.

 

Entries will be accepted in two categories – for those above 18 and under 18 years – with members of the public having the opportunity to vote online for their favourite shortlisted entry. The winners will be announced in late December.

For more information on the Awards, and to download the entry form and terms and conditions, log onto www.headsup.ie/movieawards.

Entry forms must be posted to HeadsUp Movie Awards, Rehab Group, Roslyn Park, Sandymount, Dublin 4 and received no later than Friday October 28 2011.

 

It is estimated that one in four people will experience a mental health problem at some point in their lives. HeadsUp aims to help prevent youth suicides using a mental health promotion approach by intervening with the target group of 15-24 year olds early and before they reach a point of crisis.

HeadsUp’s focus is on supporting people in understanding mental health where people realise their own abilities and have the resilience to cope with tough times when they happen.

Share

Jim Sheridan: In Focus

The IFI celebrates Jim Sheridan’s career with Jim Sheridan: In Focus, a season screening his key films and featuring special guest appearances from the director and many of his collaborators including Daniel Day-Lewis, Hugh O’Connor, Brenda Fricker, Peter Sheridan and Kirsten Sheridan.

The IFI will present a wide-ranging season of the work of one of the key figures in contemporary Irish film – director, actor, producer and writer Jim Sheridan. Sheridan is responsible for many of the most popular and critically acclaimed films of the past twenty years. The IFI’s retrospective focuses on eight key films since he burst on to the international scene with his stunning debut My Left Foot.

For a full line-up visit www.ifi.ie

Share

Kirsten Sheridan: An Irish Director Working in Hollywood

August Rush
August Rush

Spring 2004: Richard Lewis, a producer from Southpaw Entertainment in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, sends me a script called August Rush. When I read it the first image that grabs me is a newborn baby’s hand reaching out into the air and conducting the music that plays in the nursery. It reminds me of the first scene of Disco Pigs when newborn Pig and Runt gaze across their cots at each other, and mystically reach out and hold hands. Perhaps my favourite image from my one and only feature.

This would be my first US studio feature with a budget of 30 million. Robin Williams is already attached. But honestly, the only thing I am truly interested in is the story. If you start thinking about the rest of it you’re lost, and to spend time away from my family it has to be a story that is worth it with every line. At the heart of the film is music so it will be a challenge – turning something invisible like emotion and music into imagery.

Richard calls – it turns out he was a producer on Moll Flanders which shot in Dublin years before. Even weirder, I worked on it as a trainee AD and remember handing him a cup of tea (making tea being the most important part of my job!).

‘Do you want to direct this?’ he asks. ‘I will if I can rewrite it’ I reply. A done deal. Happy days it seems.

Summer 2004: Richard calls. He got the script, he read it. A long silence. Finally he takes a laboured breath – he likes a small scene on page 6. Hmmm. What about the other 100 pages? He ‘didn’t connect so much’ with that. ‘Didn’t connect’, I realise, is a LA term for didn’t like! Seems I’ve made it too dark and arty. I guess that’s a very bad thing. Back to the drawing board, we work from the previous draft.

Autumn (or Fall!) 2004: After a slew of financing (‘give us money’) meetings I finally stand at the top of the Aer Lingus queue at LAX airport, looking forward to getting home to my 2-year-old Leyla. The phone rings. It’s Richard. ‘Get out of the queue, we have more meetings’. I turn around to spend another few days doing the rounds.

Off to London to meet Freddie Highmore. I’m not certain he’s right as I didn’t see the sense of wonder and joy we need in either Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Finding Neverland. After the first few seconds I change my mind completely, this is him, we’ve found our ‘August’.

Richard is ecstatic – a studio exec at Warner Brothers loves the script. After a year of re-writing this is welcome news! Sitting now in the lobby of the office belonging to Alan Horn, the head of the studio, preparing for the ten minutes where we make the right impression or we don’t. The studio exec asks me will August Rush be shot in the same style as Disco Pigs. I sense the right answer is no. He reminds me to make sure to tell Alan that. The studio exec has some script notes.

June 2005: At Solas on Camden Street having our going-away party. Lots of friends inside drinking, dancing, having a laugh. I’m outside in the lane on a four way conference call trying to convince someone I’ve never met to keep the film afloat. Our ‘flashing’ green light has turned to a steady orange it seems, there is a scheduling conflict with another Warner Brothers movie, I Am Legend. I’ve never heard of it. A big movie, big bucks, big issues. The next morning I change our flights for the sixth time in two weeks.

I lie in bed in limbo-land wondering will this ever happen. I go downstairs, change the flights to the following morning, wake up a few hours later and, to their surprise, start to pack for a year for the whole family. We all hop on the plane on a wing and a prayer.

July 2005: Two weeks into pre-production and our steady orange turns to a hard red. The scheduling conflict means we can’t shoot this summer. We are told we can re-conceive the story for winter. Even though much of the screenplay happens in the heat and humidity we re-group, re-think, re-write. After all, next summer our ten-year-old main character might be a foot taller and speak like Barry White.

Fly over to London to meet Johnny Rhys Myers. He tells me the script reminded him of being a child, of that delicious fearlessness only a child can possess. He looks great, he can sing, he can act, but it’s his reaction to the idea of playing a father that solidifies it for me – I’m delighted and now have to fight like hell for him.

I consider quitting. Warner want me to hire an actress I don’t want. I don’t mind schedule conflicts, budget cuts, script changes. But when it comes to casting there is just no way I can work with someone I don’t want. It’s my last card to play – her or me. Thankfully, at the last minute the head of the studio has a suggestion – Keri Russell. I don’t know her but when I meet her I thank God for her. We all agree again. Happy days.

December 2005: In heavy prep now in New York. I’m living in Brooklyn when an unprecedented transport strike means thousands have to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge every morning to get to work. My partner is back home in Ireland doing exams, my landlady tells me she doesn’t really want to rent out the house to anyone with children anymore, and Leyla is getting mighty pissed off with an absent mother. She has started to sing a song from the movie called ‘Raise It Up’. She has a very sweet voice as she bounces along on my back, except for the fact that the lyrics are ‘I feel like a motherless child, pain cuts into my soul’. Hmmmm.

My Mam and Dad are helping me and now that we’re homeless they suggest that we move into Bono’s apartment for a few weeks. Grand. I don’t realise his apartment is in one of the most famous buildings overlooking Central Park, where John and Yoko once lived. But we can’t get the heat working and Leyla has taken a notion that the toilets can’t be sat upon cause they’re black marble. My dad suggests we buy a Supercer – I come to the conclusion that we were always meant to be living in the mobile home in Finglas where my eldest sister was born in ‘72. The Penthouse of the Dakota building just doesn’t fit!

February 2006: Someone asks who, in a perfect world, I would like to play Jeffries, the social worker. I say Terrence Howard and decide to write him a letter to that effect for the laugh. I can’t believe it when he wants to do it. Hands down, the script won him over.

February 14th 2006: The night before our first day and we need snow. We are shooting in upstate New York, it’s winter in the script but we can’t afford fake snow. My Mam has started lighting a candle for me every day of the shoot. That night we get the largest snowstorm in decades on the East coast. In his caravan on set Terrence Howard pulls out his guitar and starts singing the most amazing songs he has written. I’m pretty stunned and realise now why he’s here, he loves music.

The shoot is tough, it’s ten times the budget I made Disco Pigs for, but, miraculously, I somehow have less time. I can’t figure out the math and instead spend a lot of time buffering the very strong personalities on set. The first AD and DOP start to save my life on a daily basis. The script cuts get tougher, the restricted children’s hours are impossible, Robin is only available for three weeks, we have to fight the budget for everything – even a small director’s monitor on set.

April 2006: The final three days coming up in Central Park with 500 extras (we will eventually CGI them so there’s 5,000!) and we need great weather. We have no cover, we have four camera crews, two cranes, a ton of extra ADs, it’s the most expensive moment of the shoot, and my mother is still lighting candles. It works. We get the three hottest days on record in April in Central Park.

May 2006: Hopping on a plane again now to do post-production in LA. A new crèche for Leyla, a new house in Venice. This is supposed to take three months, I suspect it will take double that with a total re-structure of the film, adding newly conceived voiceover, audience previews, different cuts, score cards, tears, sweat, etc. Because Warner Brothers usually do 150 million dollar movies, during the shoot we were pretty much a small fish in a big pond – they liked the rushes so we were left alone.

Sept 2006: We do our first preview and score 81% in the top two boxes – everyone is delighted, I figure this means I can do what I want with the cut. But instead, a little spotlight is shone on the film and the studio ‘want to try a few things’. I have a little extended holiday in Ireland, it’s the tensest time.

Feb 2007: After what seems like a long wait and a few phone calls with the head of the studio we get to go with the cut of the film I want. For a first-time director (I’m considered that because it’s my first studio picture) the film is about 75% what I want – this is a very good percentage and I’m damn lucky. I’m three months pregnant and due in July. We are supposed to release at Easter. Warner decide to hold the film back. We don’t know what that means.

We get the news that Warner have decided to release at Thanksgiving weekend. This is good news as it’s a wide release with a big marketing push to compete over such a tough family holiday movie period.

Oct/Nov 2007: We premiere at the Rome film festival in October and at a Times Square theatre in November. Leyla is loving the cameras – uh oh! One of the songs from the film is performed by IMPACT, a children’s theatre group from Harlem, at the after-party. It’s the song Leyla used to sing to me.

22nd January 2008: Shopping in Boots in Jervis Centre for baby food and I get a text from Glen Hansard from The Frames, my favourite Irish band. ‘Kirsten! Mad! We’re both up there! Wow! Brilliant! Congratulations!!!’ Seems ‘Raise It Up’ was nominated along with ‘Falling Slowly’ from Once for Best Song Oscar.

February 2008: August Rush has made good cashola at the USA box office and is going to be released on DVD at Easter. I’m off to LA with the now seven-month-old Séamus to flog the slate of projects I’m producing with Blindside Films, a company I run with Sonya Gildea in Dublin, though the next step for me will be directing a low-budget indie with a group of friends in Dublin! After the whole studio experience I would love to just get a camera into my hands and be free to move and run with it, without dragging behind the dinosaur of a huge crew and unit. Less money, less opinions, less energy spent buffering big personalities, more control. Watching films like Hotel Rwanda, Motorcycle Diaries, Constant Gardener, Battle in Seattle, I am hoping I have the courage to do something on a wider scale in terms of story, something more social, more real, more edge, tougher. To be continued…

Film Ireland – Issue 121 – See more articles here
August Rush – Official website

Share