Director Nathan Fagan talks to Film Ireland about his film Hum, an intimate portrait of artist and singer-songwriter, Kevin Nolan, which recently won the inaugural Guth Gafa Short Lens competition.
How did the project come about for you?
I first learned about Kevin Nolan from an article he wrote in The Irish Times. He discussed the challenges he has faced as a result of his diagnosis with schizo-affective disorder and how writing and performing music has helped him through some seriously dark times. I just remember being fascinated by his story and music and so I got in touch with him shortly after.
Initially, I’d been considering trying to do a radio documentary on Kevin and his music. After our first meeting, he invited me along to a performance he was giving as part of the ‘First Fortnight’ festival, at St. Patrick’s hospital, where he’s been a service user in the past. I remember watching him walk on stage, quietly sit down in front of a keyboard, and launch into this unbelievably powerful and theatrical performance of one of his songs, ‘Drowning’. By the end of the song, I’d pretty much decided to try and make a film about him.
Can you describe your relationship with Kevin over the filming period?
Before we started shooting anything, Kevin and myself spent quite a bit of time together just having conversations about anything and everything. We actually share a lot of the same interests in books, art and music. So, by the time we actually introduced a camera into the situation, we were both fairly used to each other’s company.
Although the film is only 19 minutes, we actually shot it over the course of about a year, with considerable breaks in between shoot days. Initially, I think Kevin was probably surprised at how much time it takes to get enough material for a documentary. I think there were definitely times where he wanted to get back to making music without having us hanging around filming him. It was worth it in the end, however.
How was it for you to witness Kevin’s creative process at work?
His creative process is fascinating. He works unbelievably hard at his art – treating it like a 9 to 5 essentially – but his productivity is often interrupted by his illness.
During the writing of his debut album,’Fredrick and the Golden Dawn’, he developed this routine for himself. He would wake up around 4 or 5 am, put on a full suit, and then sit down at his desk for the entire day creating songs. This went on for close to eight years – with breaks in between where his illness might become problematic or unmanageable and he might need to spend some time in the hospital.
If you listen to the album, there’s everything on there: piano, bass, electric guitar, drums, saxophone, xlyophone, organ, cello – even the musical saw. He taught himself – over the years – how to play many of these instruments himself, so as to be able to write and record the kinds of songs he wanted to make.
He also appears to draw on very eclectic sources for inspiration: poetry philosophy, folk tales, cowboy novels, dreams.
What was it like filming the live performances?
Shooting these performances was definitely a bit of a challenge. Before making this documentary, I knew next to nothing about capturing audio for live music. Foolishly, I think I just assumed it was similar to capturing regular location sound. I didn’t realise the level of expertise and experience necessary to capture high-quality audio like this. Luckily, however, we had the help of two people: Caimin Agnew, who did an unbelievable job capturing sound for the performances, and Christopher Barry, who allowed us to raid equipment from his recording studio for the day and provided some extra guidance during the shoot.
As always, Kevin delivered some incredibly powerful performances that day. Experiencing him live really is something to behold. It’s amazing to watch how Kevin transforms from this bookish, somewhat soft-spoken man into this amazingly theatrical, almost bombastic persona when he gets on stage.
I was also very lucky to get our DoP, Simon O’Neill, on-board at this stage. He really went above and beyond to help us capture the energy and uniqueness of Kevin’s performances on the day.
Did making the film have any impact on your understanding of mental illness?
Making the film has definitely changed my understanding of mental illness. Before making it, I only had a basic understanding of conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and schizo-affective disorder. Not only that, but my understanding of these conditions would have been largely gleaned from the media or popular culture.
I think there’s a tendency to sensationalise people living with these conditions in Hollywood movies, the media and popular culture. There’s a tendency to reduce individuals to their conditions and to ‘other’ them. The reality, of course, is much more complex and differs greatly from person to person. Individuals living with these conditions have full, rounded lives just like anyone else – with careers, families and relationships – but simply have the added challenge of maintaining their mental health.
I think Kevin – by being so open and honest about his experiences – can help shatter some of these misconceptions and offer a more nuanced understanding of what it’s like to live with a condition like this. That’s certainly one of the main goals of the film.
What was Kevin’s reaction to the film?
It’s been entirely positive – which is a massive relief. You never really know how people are going to react to seeing themselves on screen for the first time (I’m not sure how I’d react, to be honest) so that’s always an anxious experience.
We had our first official screening at the Guth Gafa festival just this month. I think Kevin was fairly nervous just before the screening – I certainly was, anyway – but it all went well. In fact, when they announced we had won the Short Lens competition and they wanted me to come up and answer a few questions, it was Kevin reassuring me, as I’m not really a fan of public speaking.
What are the plans for the film – screenings, etc…
We have another screening coming up at the end of this month, at the Still Voices film festival, in Longford. It’s also been selected for the Barcelona Short Film Festival and the Au Contraire Film Festival, in Montreal, who have kindly offered to fly myself and Kevin over to Montreal for the screening and provide us with accommodation. I also just received some exciting news from another festival abroad – which I’m not allowed to share just yet!
Other than that, we’re hoping some more festivals will screen it and really just to get it in front of as many people as possible.
You can find Kevin Nolan’s website here: https://www.kevinnolan.info/
Plus his critically-acclaimed first album can be found here: https://soundcloud.com/mrkevinnolan/sets/fredrick-the-golden-dawn-by