Interview: Donal Foreman, writer and director of ‘Out of Here’

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Tony Tracy sat down with Donal Foreman to discuss his debut feature Out of Here, which screens at the 2014 Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

 

Donal Foreman’s debut feature Out of Here opens on twenty-something Ciaran (Fionn Walton) returning home to Dublin from travels in Asia and follows his experiences over the subsequent days and nights of reconnecting with people and places once familiar. Displaying elements familiar from American ‘mumblecore’ cinema, it shares a kinship with films such as Tiny Furniture, Uncle Kent and Francis Ha (among others) in its sense of liminality – its  POV controlled by a central character at a threshold moment in his life and a loose-limbed, largely plotless narrative of mood and situation. In addition to such comparisons, the film is also an entirely consistant development of stylistic/formal and thematic concerns evident in Foreman’s earlier short films and exhibits filmic properties espoused in his considerable and intelligent written reflections on cinema (see donalforeman.com).

Out of Here marks a considerable contribution to contemporary Irish cinema on a number of levels. Its rejection of traditional narrative practices (particularly ill-fitting genres), its cosmopolitan tone, its sensitive and fresh portrayal of masculinity and relationships, and its use of locations that ‘re-map’ cinematic Dublin, all contribute to a film less defined by a sense of national identity than a sense of place.  Nevertheless, while it avoids being explicitly ‘Irish’ cinema in any narrow or prescriptive sense of that term (beyond its setting), the film’s tentative, only half recognised sense of home seems both specific to the wandering, cosmopolitan Ciaran (a post-modern Stephen Dedalus) and a tonally apt encapsulation of the dazed and confused national condition as we emerge from a decade of awe, then shock.

In the year that the IFB celebrated it 20th anniversary, the conditions of the film’s production – crowd-funded (without development but with some completion funding from IFB), shot on the RED EPIC with a tiny crew but great skill and edited in New York (where Foreman now lives) – also sets it apart from earlier practices deemed essential to the development of a national cinema, while linking it to micro-budget digital narratives from a new generation of feature writer-directors such as Rebecca Daly, Ivan Kavanagh and Mark O’Connor among others. Regardless of its status as a debut feature, Out of Here feels remarkably assured and engaging, suggesting that Donal Foreman will be a film maker to watch in the years ahead.

 

How far back does your ambition to make films go?

 

I started when I was 11. It was a very intuitive kind of thing where one of my friend’s Dad had a video camera and we were playing around with it, making little movies and we just got obsessed with that. So it started as a social activity and after a while we found our roles within that. I became the cameraman and I suppose parallel to that I was starting to watch more films and get interested in them. So at 13 we put a film into the Fresh Film Festival (www.freshfilmfestival.net) and that really ignited our focus to keep going. At 15 I figured out how to edit the films with a VHS recorder instead of just stopping and starting the camera. So that just kept going forward technically.

 

I guess I also had a curious mind about film history and one thing would lead to another. Tarantino was probably the first one who made me think of individual shots and the director’s vision. Then I heard he was influenced by Scorsese, who was in turn influenced by Cassavetes. So I think I was around 15 or 16 when I started reading more film history and criticism like Ray Carney (editor of Cassavetes on Cassavetes), who introduced to me the idea that film could be a way of challenging yourself, exploring the world and figuring out things you didn’t understand. From then on I had a real urge to try and do something more serious that would actually reflect the world around me and my friends.

 

In my early teens, I also got really into writing scripts, initially just because I liked how they looked! I wrote about four ridiculously surreal feature scripts, and then in my mid-teens I started getting into more personal scripts, where the main character would usually be me while all the other characters would be these one-dimension ciphers. It was later on, working with actors, that I learned to put myself in the shoes of each character, no matter who they are. It becomes a necessity because you need to talk to each actor in terms of their character’s point of view. I still think I need to put some part of myself in each character, but it’s actually a lot of fun when there’s differences too, and you’re forced to step outside yourself a bit.

 

Those short films – and now Out of Here ­- tended to leave out a lot of exposition and make the viewer work with the film.

 

I had a sense early on that what I preferred in films were the gaps where things were left to the imagination – like Kiarostami’s idea of an ‘unfinished’ cinema. I try to follow those principles. I’m more interested in images and moments than storytelling per se, so I had no interest in having a moment of exposition which would disrupt the form. I had more of these dilemmas making a feature film. Say someone gets a text message and you cut to a close-up of the text message so that the audience can read it. There’s no real aesthetic value in that. It’s just this ugly totally functional shot there to give you information – I felt more committed to the image… I was like I don’t care if you need to read that text message, I’m never going to put it in!

 

I like the fact that his family aren’t at the airport to meet him when he returns.

 

That’s an example of where the image comes before the narrative. I wanted the scene of him alone at the airport, and getting the bus into town by himself. I didn’t want the sentiment of the homecoming greeting. Once I had the image, I started figuring out how to make it work for the characters and the narrative.

 

I know the screenplay was in development for quite some time. How did you finally get it to production? Did you apply to the Irish Film Board?

 

I never actually applied to the Film Board because I never wanted to do script development with it. I was in an international script workshop called ENGAGE with it shortly after I graduated. It was for writers, directors and producers graduating from Screen Academy Scotland, the National Film School at IADT and the Baltic Film & Media School in Estonia. You’re taken to workshops in each country, and you go in with a project and they try and team you up, and prep you for assembling co-productions. I went in with this project Out of Here and half way through I swapped it and pitched a sci-fi kids escape movie instead, which I felt would be more productive in that context. I felt my project wasn’t going to be helped by pushing it in that forum because there wasn’t much room for co-production unless I filmed his travels or brought in a bunch of foreign characters just for the sake of it. Also a lot of the notes I was getting on it were ‘you need more plot’, ‘the character needs to do this’ – pushing for a stronger narrative structure to the whole thing. That there should be a deadline and a clear tension like ‘is he going to get on that flight to get out of the country…’. I wasn’t interested in fighting those interpretations so I didn’t pursue it.

 

I felt the only way I would do it with the Film Board was if they would not go through the years of script development, which I have seen hurt a lot of projects and filmmakers. I didn’t think I had a chance at bypassing that process without a big company backing me, and I wasn’t having any luck on that front. I was also thinking that if one of my shorts got into one of the bigger festivals that would give me a legitimacy to move it forward. But that didn’t really happen. After pitching it to a few established companies, I tried to find a producer but it was tough because there were no strong independent producers looking for first time writer-directors without a track record. At one point I was thinking I would even try and produce it myself, but that would have been an insanely bad idea because it was already a difficult story for a micro-budget. Eventually I came across Emmet Fleming, who already had some experience with this kind of budget and totally got what I was trying to do.

 

How did you raise the budget?

 

Emmet had the idea to do a crowd-funding campaign based on this investment model that he had seen a Belfast company, Manifesto Films, use earlier that year. We had the option to donate and get a gift in return, as you would with Kickstarter, but we also had a second option where for €150 you’d get a share in the future profits of the film, and that’s where most of the money came from. I put in some cash as well but most of it was from people buying shares. The investment model works well I think because there is a greater sense of ownership for investors and a greater impetus to help the project to succeed.

 

So was the script pretty much there at this stage?

 

Not completely. We started fundraising with a detailed treatment and began casting and then we did two weeks of rehearsals. I wrote dialogue in rehearsals. I would give the actors the premise of the scene and see where it went. So we would workshop like that and then I would write the scenes in the evening. Then we would rehearse the written version and see how that worked. So by the end of rehearsals we had the full script.

 

So you began with a scene by scene treatment?

 

Yes. I had a detailed 30-page treatment which described most things in detail except for the dialogue. I also had older drafts of a full script to draw on, as I had been developing the project over a five year period.

 

What was the starting point of the story?

 

From the very start it was the idea of this guy’s return to Dublin after a time away. The thing that excited me most initially was the shift in his perception of the city on his coming back, that it would be so familiar to him and have all this history, but him stepping away and then coming back would create this sense of estrangement. Like if you walk the same way to work everyday you stop seeing the details around you, but if you were to go away for a year and then come back, all of a sudden it’s a new street.

 

By the time it was in pre-production I had already lived in New York for a year and so I was perfectly poised for it. That first month back after New York, I was finding new ideas for the film everywhere and everyday.

 

Lets talk about casting. How did you find your actors?

 

I had a few people in mind already. I had a whole database of actors in my head of who I would like to work with. If an Irish actor has a showreel online I have seen it at this stage. Part of it was how the characters were going to interact together, but mainly it was the traditional way of seeking out actors from what we had seen them in. Then there were people I knew in Dublin who had never done any acting but who were just characters who I know would be really interesting within a certain scenario. And I tried to collect people from the different worlds in the film like some people from art school and so on.

 

And what about the central character – played by Fionn Walton?

 

Fionn came out of the Actor’s Studio in The Factory. So much of the casting came together quite easily but the lead was the hardest thing by far because he carries the whole film. I wanted someone with a certain kind of charisma who would be compelling to watch. It had to be someone who you would just want to watch even if they weren’t doing much anyway, that they would hold the screen but without being a “pretty boy” or a macho actor. I wanted someone who was still a little bit awkward and boyish. So just finding that balance was tough.

 

What was your experience of the shoot?

 

The shoot was by far the most challenging thing I have ever done, most of all because of the time pressures. It’s not obvious, in the middle of things, what you sohuld compromise on and leave out or what you’re going to regret later. We had 20 days to shoot something that had way more characters, crowd scenes and location changes than is ever advisable for a micro-budget project. We didn’t have a lot of money to throw around so we were often at the mercy of other people’s commitments. As a result, we shot ridiculously out of order in terms of continuity, mainly because of location availability and actors’ schedules. Aoife Duffin, for example, was shooting the second season of Chris O’Dowd’s Moone Boy throughout our production, and was only available on weekends. It was really not ideal for the story, but I think we managed to pull it off, and having rehearsals definitely helped.

 

Was it an obvious choice to shoot on the RED EPIC camera?

 

Yes – that’s the camera my cameraman Piers McGrail owns. He’s shot all my fiction shorts since film school and I knew I wanted to work with him. But the EPIC didn’t make life easy. Sometimes it might take two hours to light and I’d get 10 minutes to do the scene because the EPIC requires more lighting, more equipment and expense in general than the RED. There is so much lighting in the film – apart from the exterior daytime stuff, everything in the film is lit. And it is very exact, so while the film looks fairly natural it is actually quite contrived.

 

Given that stylistic commitment to naturalism, how did you manage sound?

 

For the most complex scenes, we used 2 boom mikes and 4 radio mikes: I wanted these people to be free to interrupt and talk over each other. And we deliberately have no score but there’s quite a bit of diegetic music from local bands at various points. Some people find the lack of a score a bit difficult but there’s a whole visual arc to the film that goes from a cluttered, claustraphobic feeling to a more open, lighter sense and I wanted to reflect that in the sound design imposing it through musical cues.

 

Lets talk about the edit and arriving at your final cut

 

I edited by myself in New York over about six months. The main challenge was that there was a lot of material—30 hours in total. The first assembly was 3 hours and the first watchable cut was 110. I thought I’d never get it down to 80 mins. But the first time I did a test screening (to a group I’m part of in New York, the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective) I cut 20 minutes out the next day. I hadsuch a better understanding of the pacing of it, just from watching it in a room with other people. I could feel people just waiting for the end at a few different points—even I was.

 

The film’s use of location is striking – you manage to add to the cinematic city of recent Dublin-set films like Adam and Paul, Kisses, Once and What Richard Did.

 

I always saw this character and his return as vehicle for exploring the city and explore the different aspects of it. I was asking myself, if you were in Dublin in your early 20s, what possibilities are open to you? What social spaces, domestic spaces, and how do you express yourself in different spaces like the pub, or at dinner with your family or wandering around by yourself. So I was thinking about locations that would help explore those different facets. I also had a bit of a thing about how the city has been represented cinematically – that there has been generally been a failure of representation – with the Dublin often functioning as a backdrop rather than a character. Obviously there are exceptions to this but I wanted to be attentive to the spaces of the city and so I very deliberately mapped the action to reflect that.

 

www.outofherefilm.com

Tony Tracy lectures in film at the Huston School of Film and Digital Media, NUI Galway.

www.filmschool.ie

 

Out of Here screens on Saturday, 22nd February 2014 at 8:30PM in the Light House.

Click here for further coverage of the 12th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

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JDIFF 2012 First Look Cinema Review: Margaret, directed by Kenneth Lonergan

Jameson Dublin International Film Festival

First Look: Margaret

Tuesday, 21st February, 8:00pm, Cineworld

In Kenneth Lonergan’s long-awaited return to filmmaking since his breakout success, You Can Count On Me (2000), he delivers an emotionally intense and engaging drama set in New York City post 9/11. The film relates the story of teenager Lisa (Anna Paquin) whose path crosses with a bus driver, played by Mark Ruffalo. Their chance encounter results in a gruesome bus crash, claiming the life of a woman. And what ensues is a relentless pursuit for justice and atonement.

Oscar®-winner Anna Paquin delivers an impeccable and powerful performance playing Lisa, the somewhat spoilt, awkward and self-absorbed teenage daughter of separated parents, off-Broadway actress Joan (J Smith-Cameron) and Karl (played by the director, Kenneth Lonergan) who lives on the West Coast. As well as going through the horrific ordeal of the bus crash, Lisa is dealing with all the other issues that any typical teenager has to face. As a result her teenage angst seems to be amplified, to the point she often becomes a very annoying character, but this essentially works really well.

Margaret boasts a very talented and well-known cast. Even with their comparatively small roles Matthew Broderick, Matt Damon, Allison Janney, Jean Reno and Mark Ruffalo give great performances and their characters all have a vital role to play in the life of Paquin’s character.  Jeannie Berlin also gives a stunning performance as Emily, the dead woman’s best friend with whom Lisa teams up with in her quest for justice.

Lonergan’s portrayal of a young woman’s struggle with her conscience is superb. He captures the highs and lows that Lisa’s situation generates, from the beautifully calm slow motion sequences of Lisa walking through the city, to the powerful scene with Emily in the lawyer’s office for the last time where she has a complete breakdown. Another interesting aspect to this film is the complete role reversal of the characters. The usual student/teacher and child/parent roles seem to be reversed. The adults in this film are quite selfish, irresponsible and too caught up in their own lives to be able to give Lisa the moral guidance she so desperately wants and needs.

Her mother is completely preoccupied with her new play and new romance with Ramon (played by Jean Reno). Her father, who lives on the West (opposite) coast has a new family and is trying to kick start his career. He and Lisa have awkward conversations that show she is desperate for a parent – but he never delivers. Emily seems to be her only source of comfort and counsel but does at times question Lisa’s intentions.

Kenneth Lonergan participated in a Q&A after the film. The audience had nothing but praise for Lonergan and this, his second film. His tremendous love and respect for his cast and crew really came across as he talked about making this film. Apart from the fact that his wife plays Lisa’s mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron) and he went to high school with Matthew Broderick, he really defends the merit in working with people he knew. He wanted to work with talented people, and the people whose talents he knows, are people he knows. Simple. He spoke of Anna Paquins performance as ‘always at full pitch’. He also spoke about the above-mentioned scene where Lisa and Emily are in the lawyer’s office for the last time and describes how she achieved her amazing performance after only three takes. Lonergan described how with the crew he watched that scene from another room on a monitor. When Paquin finished the scene and came into the room where they all were and he described how  ‘the emotion ebbed out of her’.

I found this film completely compelling and complex. The only criticism I would have is that there seems to be too much going on towards the end of the film, so much so, that some of the sub storylines don’t seem very plausible. But this doesn’t take away from the overall brilliance of the long overdue return to the director’s chair of Kenneth Lonergan.

Michelle Cunningham

Click here for Film Ireland‘s coverage of this year’s Jameson Dublin International Film Festival

Click here for full details and to book tickets for this year’s Jameson Dublin International Film Festival

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JDIFF 2012 Out of the Past: Baraka,1992

Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2012

Out of the Past: Baraka

Saturday, 25th February, 1:00pm, Cineworld

Although not blatant and certainly not hamstrung by an imposed agenda beyond that of the viewer’s own reactions, Ron Fricke’s enduring documentary still tells a story of sorts. Its narrative arc lies in the development of our planet and it charts a world which in the early stages is untouched by man before then detailing a wide array of different cultures and their impact before finally turning skyward to loftier, less earthbound concerns.

While abstract and obtuse in its execution the film is quite approachable as the images offered are often beautiful tableaux. It is crisply shot with a vibrancy that benefits the diverse tones and textures of the journey. A lack of framing device or voiceover lets us bring our own sensibilities to the piece and I do believe it’s this lack of structure that accounts for Baraka’s legacy. A voiceover or a framing device would have hemmed in the film and forced the hand of its filmmakers to arrive at some trite point, the whole planet and civilisation boiled down into some weary soundbite. One can comment on and condemn human atrocities such as concentration camps without lecturing, and in a world where talking head documentaries manipulate an audience so condescendingly it is refreshing to see such broad strokes used to subtle effect.

It is obvious that Fricke honed his skills as a cinematographer on a similar style of films the Qatsi trilogy, directed by Godfrey Reggio, and this is his chance to personally tackle large issues in a way only cinema can. The term visual poetry has become overused but some of the beats here definitely flow with a rhythm one scene involving a colossal bell is a compelling moment. Photography comes close to this pursuit of capturing the world. However a picture is only the tease of an event but seeing a communal tribal chant for example in its full glory needs motion. It needs sound.

When focused on people and their rituals the film casts its spell admirably but as breathtaking as landscapes can be the novelty of seeing a volcano can wear off surprisingly quickly and long shots of that nature when overdone has always rankled me as something almost predictably art house. Baraka does fall into that trap but rarely as the cumulative effect of the visuals does satisfy on both an emotional and aesthetic level. With its sequel having just been released in Samsara it is time to revisit this and while it can only hint at this planet’s infancy and the future it would be interesting to see how far the filmmaker Ron Fricke has himself matured in the interim and to contrast his views on nature and technology in a time when the latter is more prevalent than ever.

Emmet O’Brien
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JDIFF Season Ticket Available now

The Jameson Dublin International Film Festival are selling the ‘Hot Ticket’ – their Festival Season Ticket – at an early bird discount rate of €195 until Christmas Eve.

JDIFF Season Ticket Holders receive a range of benefits, including:

-Entry into the 130+ film screenings and special events that make up JDIFF

-To walk the Red Carpet with the stars during the 2011 festival this February

-Invitations to after-parties

-To see a preview of the festival line-up before the programme launch

-Exclusive priority booking

Season Tickets as well as JDIFF Gift Vouchers can be booked online at jdiff.com. The Jameson Dublin International Film Festival takes place 17–27 February 2011.

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The Seasons with Kila Musicians

The Irish Film Archive at the IFI and The Jameson Dublin International Film Festival will present a special screening of The Seasons accompanied by live music from Colm and Rossa Ó Snodaigh (members of Kíla) and harpist Cormac de Barra.

The Seasons is an intimate diary of life in the little village of Kilkelly, Co. Mayo. Filmed in 1935 by amateur filmmaker Dr. John Benigus Lyons, it charts the social and agricultural life of the village over the course of the year.

It will be screened on Saturday 21st February at 7.30 pm and tickets cost €18.

For further information and bookings please click here or contact the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival box office on 01 672 8861.

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