Steve Kenny turns back time with Film Ireland to chat about his short film.
Time Traveller is the story of a Back To The Future-obsessed 10 year-old named Martin, who is trying to build his very own DeLorean out of an old car and bits of scrap. When Martin’s family is told they are to be evicted from their halting site, Martin races against time to finish his project, creating tension between him and his father.
The story was the product of two separate ideas that had been brewing for a while. I had long wanted to tell a story set in the travelling community – in particular, one that showed a different, less sensationalist side of traveller life than what we’re used to seeing on screen. Martin’s family are a traveller family forced to deal with the specific problem of eviction, but, in a more general sense, they’re also just another Irish family trying to navigate their way through a difficult time, which I think most people can relate to on some level. The other less conventional aspect of the story comes from a more personal place. As a kid, I spent hours watching and rewatching my favourite movies, imagining what it would be like to live in the same worlds as the characters. Chief among those movies of course were the Back To The Future trilogy. I think every kid who grew up with those films longed to take a drive in Doc and Marty’s DeLorean. I thought the idea of a 10-year-old kid taking the initiative to build his own DeLorean was exciting, and Time Traveller allowed me to fulfil a childhood wish of my own, in a roundabout way.
I’ve done a lot of writing over the last few years. Every project is different and – though it’s certainly not always the way – the Time Traveller script came very quickly, and most of what was in the first draft closely resembles the finished film. I made my first short, the horror film Coil, with producer Collie McCarthy and we’ve been collaborating ever since. Collie is my first port of call with everything I write and, when I showed him Time Traveller, we agreed that it had the makings of a decent little film.
We submitted it to the Irish Film Board and were delighted when they selected us for funding as part of their inaugural Focus Shorts scheme. They were up front about the risk they felt they were taking in backing us as it was quite an ambitious project – involving child actors, car stunts and a lot of logistical obstacles. Ultimately though, they believed in the script and in our vision and their support and guidance was crucial to us being able to tell the story in the way that we wanted.
Our biggest concern in pre-production was finding the right boy to play the lead role of Martin. Given that he is in every scene, and drives all the action, we knew the film would succeed or fail based on the strength of his performance. We decided early on that it was important for us to cast a boy from the travelling community, and we spent months holding auditions until we found someone who we felt embodied the role. We saw a lot of talented kids, but when we found Tom we knew he was something special. Although he’d never acted before, Tom’s family, the Dorans, are no strangers to the limelight. His two older brothers, one of whom is also in the film, have both modelled for photographer Perry Ogden so the idea of being in front of a camera wasn’t totally alien to Tom. Beyond that, Tom has an intensity and intelligence that few adult actors could match. His performance really makes the film and I’ve no doubt in the bright acting future he has ahead of him.
We were also fortunate to have the very talented Barry Ward play the role of Martin’s father, John Paul. Barry is a tremendous actor, incredibly experienced and a very nice guy to work with in general. As this was my first time directing children, it was great to have someone with his experience and demeanour on set, to bounce ideas off and help mould Tom’s performance. The father-son relationship between John Paul and Tom is the core of our story and, thanks to Barry and Tom’s chemistry, I think that comes through powerfully in the film.
I had been an admirer of the cinematography of Piers McGrail for a long time and was delighted when he decided to come on board. We agreed on a naturalistic aesthetic for the majority of the film that occasionally gives way to something more heightened to reflect Martin’s excitement. This principle extended to our sound design and our Supervising Sound Editor, Niall Brady, put together something special for the seminal scene where John Paul tows Martin’s DeLorean around a field at top speed. Practically, this was the most challenging scene to shoot, with a lot of different elements needed to capture everything in the way we wanted. We had a stunt driver for the scenes where the car was moving around at high speeds, and we used a drone to get tracking shots. For the close-ups of the actors and of the car, we created a lot of the motion using a mix of clever camera movements, wind machines and a lot of bouncing up and down on the rear and front bumper! It was my first time using many of these filming techniques but, with the support of our experienced crew, I was able to shoot it almost exactly as planned and I’m really pleased with how it turned out.
Overall, the shoot was a great success. Thanks to Collie and our excellent production team, we put together an incredibly talented and dedicated crew, which made directing the film a real pleasure. Our post-production was also incredibly smooth as we did it all in-house at Screen Scene. Our editor, Colin Campbell, and myself spent just two weeks together cutting the film, after Colin’s initial assembly. In the edit, you often want to exhaust all the options with everything you’ve got before settling on something final, but Colin has such good instincts for choosing the right moments that we were able to work through most scenes quite quickly. This afforded more time for us to spend working out the trickier sequences until we were satisfied.
For the score, I knew I wanted something that evoked the same epic sound of the music from the family blockbusters of the ’80s… something that gave a nod to the famous Back To The Future theme but which was also distinctive and original. Composer Ray Harman did a fantastic job creating a theme that works perfectly in the big driving scene, as well as in the quieter and more sombre opening and closing of the film.
Working with such talent and experience meant we were able to deliver the film two months ahead of schedule. That made us the first completed short on the Film Board’s new Focus scheme, and they decided to pull forward our premiere screening to the Galway Film Fleadh in July. We were thrilled with the positive audience response it received and are delighted to be taking the film to Cork this weekend, and to Foyle the week after. The goal is to get as much recognition as we can on the festival circuit as we now take the step into feature films.
Up next for me is a horror feature I’ve been developing for a number of years about superstition and disappearances in a remote West of Ireland community that’s similar to my first short, Coil. Although different to Time Traveller in many respects, the motivation behind it is the same as it is with all my projects – to tell original, relevant and compelling Irish stories that audiences will enjoy.
Time Traveller screens as part of Irish Shorts 6 – Family Adventures at 13.30 on 18th November in the Gate at the Cork Film Festival (10 – 19 November)