“The stress test is truthfully most women’s experience”- Seán Crosson In Conversation with Mary McGuckian
Mary McGuckian, whose most recent film The Price of Desire is currently screening in Irish cinemas, has directed 12 films to date, an impressive figure when one considers the challenges female directors in particular have faced in the male-dominated world of cinema.
She was interviewed by Seán Crosson in the Irish Pavillion at EXPO Milano 2015, as part of a seminar on Irish cinema organised by the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies (EFACIS) and following the screening of The Price of Desire at the Milano Design Film festival in October 2015.
Seán Crosson: Could I begin by asking you what it is that draws you to the films that you direct?
Mary McGuckian: You need to feel it… it’s a very organic holistic thing. You need to feel that the perspective or the point of view, the subject matter, the underlying thesis of it, and the kind of zeitgeist or the l’air du temps are all meeting. When you find that, you know it and you know that you can make that… every artist is always looking for that. And that was my kind of discovery.
The things that impressed me most about Eileen Gray were her work ethic, her disregard for the results of her work. Above all, she was very authentic and had great integrity about the act or the craft, and was very conscious of being on the forefront and constantly studying and keeping up to date, and very spiritually true to what she was doing. I found that phenomenally impressive and something of an inspiration. Filmmakers are odd people, we’re not kind of brilliant at anything, we’re just okay at a lot of things. We just sort of manage everybody else. The trick is to collaborate in a way that brings the best of the people you are working with.
Could you talk a little about your own background as an Irish filmmaker?
Growing up, we had a paucity of film, we didn’t really have a film culture. I mean, the likes of Pat Murphy was just a one-off that wasn’t part of a movement. She was just a phenomenally tenacious young woman. There wasn’t a film culture, there wasn’t a film style, there wasn’t an interest in film. But there was this great literary and theatre culture that is our strength as a nation. One funny thing that nobody ever mentions is that there was a theatre for those of us that came through the theatre – but again there wasn’t even a theatre school when I started. But we did have strong university groups and there was an alternative theatre. If you didn’t work in the Gate, and that was the snobby theatre, or the Abbey, which was the national theatre, there was the Project. There was another little theatre company called Focus Theatre and that was the nearest we had in Ireland to some form of international training theatre.
We had a slowly emerging film culture that came out of theatre. If you notice, our actors who have travelled were all male and have a certain style. We had a very specific and separate theatre culture. So those of us who were women grew up in a theatre culture in Ireland, which is a very strong culture of theatre for women but it wasn’t a performance-style that translated to cinema or translated internationally. In my mid-twenties I remember Joan O’Hara in the Abbey saying the guys travel… and she was right. There was one swarthy fabulous looking Irish fella after another, starting with Pierce [Brosnan] and Liam [Neeson], Daniel [Day Lewis] and Stephen [Rea]. They all had a quality that there was a place for in international cinema. There were no women since Maureen O’Hara until Saoirse Ronan. British cinema culture is quite established. It’s very sure about what it’s about. And we’ve depended on that to a great extent and for a period when the Irish Film Board began and European co-production, European media foundation started, we struggled as to whether we should be part of the posh filmmakers of Europe or leaning towards America and interestingly the films that have leaned towards America have tended to be more successful. Inevitably, I suspect because of the English language.
Things have changed greatly since the 1980s and the period you describe…
It’s phenomenal what has happened in a very short period of time. I was away for a long time. Like a lot of people, I had to leave the country and recently have come back. When I first started making films, we didn’t have a film culture, we didn’t have film support, we didn’t have any sort of industry, which was kind of good for us in that we could go anywhere basically. But now it’s great to come back and find post-production set up. When we used to shoot something we’d have to send it to London. We’d get our rushes back four days later.
Robert De Niro in The Bridge of San Luis Rey
You’ve worked with an extraordinary array of actors including Donald Sutherland, F. Murray Abraham, Robert De Niro, Samantha Morton, to name but a few as well as many leading Irish actors from Richard Harris to Gabriel Byrne and in your current feature Orla Brady. How do you approach working with actors in your work?
I’ve been very lucky with actors, very lucky. And I think that comes from those who came through theatre culture, and Jim Sheridan, he’s brilliant with actors. And Neil [Jordan] is too, though Neil is probably more visual. And he’s more of a literary storyteller. But we did all emerge out of theatre and as actors, to some degree or another. So storytelling is a character-driven process for most Irish filmmakers, I believe it comes from that background. So, inevitably we write for actors. If the material is good enough, when we approach actors they agree to work with us, they respond to the material, they respond to the process.
I’ve played a lot with the acting processes, I’m very interested in how actors emerge, and how characters develop and all of those things. I’ve made a lot of films, quite a few films that are quite experimental in terms of their approach to the responsibility of the artist or the actor as an interpretative but also as an editorial participant in the making of the film.
The Making of Plus One
One of those experimental films was The Making of Plus One (2010), set during the Cannes Film Festival. How did that film come about?
It came about as a bit of a joke in a way, after The Bridge of San Luis Rey (2004), which was a tough experience, having such an extraordinary cast, and, funnily enough, I’m about to spend the winter in Ireland recutting that film and doing a director’s cut, because it was taken away from me and recut in a way that had very little to do with the original script – and that was a horrendous experience. I discovered the bigger the budgets got and the bigger the crews got, the further away the actor was from what you were trying to achieve and this linear process that had been in place since 1910 was still operational and nobody had done anything to improve or change it.
Around that time, in about 2005, right at the beginning of digital filmmaking, I went on a crazy experiment over a trilogy of three films, to bring together a company of actors and crew; not to improvise films in a Curb Your Enthusiasm kind of way but to reinvent the process for bringing a story to the screen, partly using the digital processes but also – they weren’t necessarily any cheaper, they were just different – to give actors more responsibility for their participation. We had a very structured storyline, like a traditional script, but the actors improvised – I did a workshop with them for weeks on-end prior. They developed their character and then they were able to perform as characters without dialogue. We did three of those – Rag Tale (2005), Intervention (2007) and Inconceivable (2008). It was only ever meant to be a trilogy but by the end the lunatics had taken over the asylum, and they were going ‘well what’s next’? So eventually after each one of those films being on the short list for Cannes but never selected, we decided to go to Cannes and make The Making of Plus One, which we did as a group. It was quite fun and it was funny and it was an obvious statement about the nature of what the whole festival scenario and what the role of an actor in the making of a film has become.
The improvisational style you describe is quite reminiscent of the work of John Cassavetes. What directors have influenced your approach?
I did go to drama school in the UK and France subsequently and one of my teachers was Mike Leigh. Mike was very good to me. He has his way of improvising – he uses improvisation to create material, whereas I try to use improvisation to drive character to take the material to the screen. So, in a funny way, what I came up with doing, thanks to him, was almost the exact opposite or reverse of what he does, which is a fantastic process, and one I still apply to material even if its scripted or partly scripted. I think actors like it, which is why they seem to want to come and do movies with me because I work in a different way.
So how did the Eileen Gray project develop?
Filmmaking has changed a lot. It changed very very quickly over a ten-year period where I was very fortunate. I think I got to make 5 or 6 movies over ten years, during that period. I guess there were contemporary issues again… I was always trying to drive female issues but I was having to mask them constantly in something else.
For a long time I wanted to make a film about Eileen Gray but I couldn’t. I suppose for three main reasons: I was struggling to find what the essence of the story was – a biopic lends itself more to a documentary. and secondly, I really needed to feel passionately that the world would want to see this movie, and what might it be about, the underlying thesis. And thirdly, it needed to be an Irish film and how could I get back to Ireland and make the film that could call itself Irish.
I had known about Eileen Gray as an Irish artist. I always thought of her as the founder of – I don’t know where I got this idea – as the founder of minimalism. I’m a bit of a minimalist myself and I’ve always been very interested in the turn of the century, those displaced independent Irish women who found themselves in politics, in literature and in the arts. It’s an interesting thing, because out of periods like that – and they are very rare – emerge women of impact. And then suddenly post-1922, the country closed down and there were no more women of impact – what happened? What seemed to happen was what led to Virgina Woolfe’s A Room with a View. There were a small group of women who were neither Irish in England nor English in Ireland who were educated, of means, and they had all of that going for them and able to decide to follow their path which was not a liberty or a privilege that most Irish women had. But they did do that with some integrity, some of them, including Countess Markievicz and, in particular, Eileen Gray. She followed her path that brought her as an artist through her own journey, emerging very autodidactically.
It’s just a fascinating story that she achieved so much and I wanted to understand more about what she’s about but I knew that a film as a biopic wouldn’t be that interesting. So then you wait until you find the kernel of what’s important. And I guess that was the controversy that emerged around the house e.1027 [the modernist villa in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin which Eileen Gray designed and built from 1926-29], which is kind of the centrepiece of the film and is very much the apotheosis of her life’s work. It’s very interesting that a lot of women who have an impact in whatever field they are in, it seems to me, tend to reach that later in life than their male counterparts, often in their fifties. At the age of 52 she designed and built the first modernist house – and what makes it a great female story, not necessarily a male story, is that she was not recognised, she lost the right to be recognised as the author of her work. In a French environment where the droit morale is in your DNA, you can’t give away your droit morale. To have a house which she actually lost ownership of is a great visual metaphor. So it seemed to me I had found a key to that story.
Telling it from Eileen Gray’s point of view was very hard to finance, so it had to become a dialogue between herself and Le Corbusier [the Swiss-French architect, designer, painter, urban planner, writer, and one of the pioneers of modern architecture].
Alanis Morissette and Orla Brady in The Price of Desire
There are two levels of outcome to The Price of Desire, the film as a piece of art and the film as the story of Eileen Gray – when you view the film now, how do you judge it? Are you satisfied with it as a work of art or are you satisfied as having successfully told a story?
I am pleased with it. It never set out to be a traditional narrative film or a particularly commercial film. It was clearly a prestige piece. So how it looked was very important to me as an art piece. I think it looks very beautiful. As a story, it’s innately flawed in its own right when you tell it truthfully, so we were always going to struggle with that. But in terms of driving it through character and having Le Corbusier telling the story – that kind of odd device that is used in it – I’m quite pleased that with the dialogue, Eileen Gray has the first word and the last word, Le Corbusier gets to say his piece, and then the cinematic licence is taken when we allow him to forgive himself.
Are there any parallels between the experience of Eileen Gray as a female artist and your own experiences as a female director? What kind of changes have you seen in the film industry since you first started making films, particularly in such a male dominated industry?
Ireland has emerged not only with a film business and a film industry but with a cultural voice – there are young filmmakers emerging and this year in particular there have been a couple – Room, etc. – of voices emerging, very strong pieces of Irish cinema, that are culturally Irish. And it’s not just the odd film. Every year there are a few important films coming out, but there are very few women emerging. But that isn’t particular to Ireland, this problem is deeply disappointing to me that every year I am contacted as one of the 7% of directors/writers that are women – ‘did you notice that only 7% of films over the last year were made by women’, and that number, I don’t know why it’s 7%, it has stayed 7% for twenty years. It’s very very disturbing.
This in a way is what really spoke to me from the Eileen Gray film… it wasn’t that she suffered, it was never going to be Erin Brokovich story, it wasn’t one big legislative event, but it was a lifetime – and she had a long life – and this is, I would have to say, most women’s experience – a lifetime of tiny omissions, forgetfulness, odd remarks, and slights, whatever you want to call them. None of which are evil, none of which you can legislate against. I used to use an analogy, because I came from engineering, mechanical/civil engineering and my final thesis experimentation was a thing called Shot peening – it’s a way of measuring force which is, when you’re trying to experiment on the strength of materials, you’re trying to just measure the force of the material as in what it would take to break it, you just thump it until you get a combination of the speed and weight at which you’d thump something to make it break. That’s force. But what’s much more interesting and much more – and they do a lot of it now with trains and runways and things – is the fatigue or the stress level of the material, what does it take to break a material if you’re just doing tiny little taps, and over what period of time and at what frequency does it take. In a way, Eileen Gray’s life started to remind me of shot peening as distinct from force – if Erin Brokovich is the force test, then Eileen Gray is the stress test, and the stress test is truthfully most women’s experience. It is the universal female experience that over the lifetime of a career you just have these constant little put-downs, not quite included, sort of omitted – nothing you could ever complain about but as a combination in aggregate there’s a moment where the stress test breaks the material, causes the crack. She was Victorian so she wasn’t a self-promoter in the way that Le Corbusier was, but that was part of her integrity as an artist. She survived as an artist because she wasn’t looking for acclaim but at the same time the lack of recognition sadly had a great negative influence on a century of architecture and design. She had some very important things to say about the way in which we live in the world and how we construct, and the habitats that we inhabit.
Given the continuing low percentage of women directors involved in film, what initiatives do you think could be taken to address this?
I don’t know how to break it. It has to be from both ends, international distribution has something to do with it, but practically, women often need an invitation, they are not good at bashing through doors so maybe we need to start inviting young women into the film industry in a more positive way. I ended up studying engineering, being one of three girls in a class of 120, but I remember why. The University did a kind of an outreach, they went round all the girls schools to say don’t limit yourself. Why can’t you do engineering? Think about doing architecture? So maybe we need to do that, I think it might just take an invitation.
The Price of Desire is currently in cinemas
Dr. Seán Crosson is the Programme Director of the MA in Film Studies: Theory and Practice at the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway. His publications include Sport and Film (Routledge, 2013) and several co-edited volumes, including Contemporary Irish Film: New Perspectives on a National Cinema (Braumüller, 2011) and The Quiet Man … and Beyond: Reflections on a Classic Film, John Ford and Ireland (Liffey Press, 2009). He is currently President of the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies (EFACIS).