Alan Gilsenan, Writer / Director of ‘Unless’ & ‘The Meeting’

 

Stephen Porzio met up with filmmaker Alan Gilsenan to chat about his two films set for Irish cinemas this year.

Imagine being a director and getting trapped by snow at home, the day your new film will premiere. This happened to Irish filmmaker Alan Gilsenan, leading him to walk from the Wicklow Mountains all the way to Dublin’s Lighthouse Cinema.

“I kind of enjoyed it. It was like a strange pilgrimage”, he remarks. His story reminds me of fellow filmmaker Werner Herzog, who famously walked from Munich to Paris to visit a dying friend. Gilsenan jokes: “Jesus, I’d say that’s where the likeness ends but if we could even approach old Herzog that’d be fine for me”.

Following last year’s acclaimed documentary Meetings with Ivor, Gilsenan is here at the Filmbase office to promote the first of two dramas he directed being released this year. Out on the 16th March is the Canadian-set Unless, starring Catherine Keener as an author whose daughter (Hannah Gross, Netflix’s Mindhunter) decides to drop out of college and live on the streets.

Attending the press screening of Unless was the first time I left my house after the Beast from the East. What am I presented with but a cold, drippy, snowy Ontario setting.

“I’d always pride myself as someone who doesn’t really feel the cold. But I was in Toronto and thought ‘this is just unbearable’ … I heard some of the sparks and the grips talking about how it was the coldest Winter in Toronto in 150 years the March we shot,” Gilsenan laughs.

Continuing he says: “I’d go into the catering truck just to be warm for five minutes. The other thing is I envisaged a Toronto covered in snow but when it gets to those temperatures, the snow doesn’t fall. It’s just ice. We were putting in fake snow even though it was -35 degrees.”

Adapted from a novel from Pulitzer Prize-Winner Carol Shields, writer-director Gilsenan translates the stream-of-consciousness prose of the source to the screen. While the book is about a mother’s reaction to her child wanting to live on the street, the film centres on the mystery of why the heroine’s daughter, Norah, acts in such a manner.

On adapting the novel, Gilsenan says: “[The film] is a meditation. The source was Carol Shields’ book … Sometimes I’d go back to [it] to check something and think ‘what was I thinking’. It’s the most unlikely film. The book is like Virginia Woolf. It all happens in her head.”

Many of Shields’ themes remain, the cynicism of the modern world and a desire to subvert common depictions of the ‘dysfunctional’ middle-class family. However, a key aspect of the book was excised in the transition to the big screen.

“I think partly the book is a reflection about being a woman in the world. I probably didn’t emphasise it quite as much. I’m also aware that with an extraordinary female cast and Emer Reynolds editing the film and Celiana Cárdenas as the DOP, I’m the only weak link.” He adds thoughtfully: “Probably should have been a woman who made it”.

Unless provides a realistic depiction of homelessness. I ask Gilsenan if the rise of people living on the streets in Ireland led him to choose the subject matter: “Maybe at some subliminal level … It did really bring home the reality of homelessness. The bitter cold … We were in Toronto when quite a few homeless people froze to death. We’ve started to see that in Dublin.”

I note that the scenes where Norah is living on the street felt authentic. “Some of the stuff we shot with Hannah on long lenses is on active streets. In the scene where the frat boys are hassling her – a young woman – it’s actually in the film – got very upset. That was real,” Gilsenan replies.

Gilsenan’s second film in 2018 The Meeting also feels eerily topical, focusing on the true story of a young rape victim confronting her attacker. Scheduled for a September release, the drama premiered at ADIFF last month. Before this interview, I couldn’t find who starred in the movie.

“Alva Griffith, the woman [it is based on] plays herself. It was a deliberate decision by ADIFF not to put the cast in. We felt the film will always be talked about in terms of Alva playing herself. We thought it would be nice to have a screening where that isn’t the issue.” He adds: “A lot people said to me after, ‘Who’s the actress. She’s great.’”

Clint Eastwood made a similar casting decision in his 2018 film The 15:17 to Paris. “Clint copies me in everything. I keep saying to him ‘Clint, stop’”, Gilsenan laughs.

Playing the assailant in The Meeting is Terry O’Neill, an actor who recently appeared in IFTA-winner Michael Inside. Between this and Hannah Gross recently working with David Fincher on Mindhunter, Gilsenan has a knack for discovering great talent. “Well you hope … I think Hannah’s wonderful and Terry is a real star.”

Next, Gilsenan plans a ‘strange experimental film inspired by Joyce’s Ulysses’. He is elusive when I ask if he will return to documentaries: “I quite like the documentary area, I like the drama. I like the more experimental stuff too.” A bit like Werner Herzog.

 

Unless is in Irish cinemas from 16th March 2018

The Meeting will open in Irish cinemas later this year

 

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ADIFF 2017 Irish Film Review: Unless

Unless_DIFF_2

Sarah Cullen looks at Alan Gilsenan’s Canadian/Irish co-production Unless, which screened at the 2017 Audi Dublin International Film Festival.

Reta Winters (Catherine Keener) lives a contented life as a translator and author in the suburbs of Canada, with her three daughters and loving husband Tom (Matt Craven). That is, until one day her eldest daughter Norah (Hannah Gross) drops out of university and is found living on the streets of Toronto. Refusing to talk, Norah spends much of her day sitting in front of a large discount retail outlet, sporting a cardboard sign with the word single word “Goodness” where those passing by can see. Reta and Tom initially try to convince Norah to return home with them, but once they realise this attempt is futile, they do their best to support Norah in her unusual choice.

Told from the point of view of Reta, Unless is based upon the final novel from Pulitzer-winner Carol Shields. Keener is extremely relatable as the moral and emotional core of the film. Opening as the film does with an up-close, unvarnished shot of Reta checking her breast for lumps (perhaps a nod towards Shields herself, who died of breast cancer shortly after she published her final novel), Unless considers the experiences of motherhood in middle age.  Helmed by Irish director Alan Gilsenan, Torontos’s snow-scape provides both an element of chilly foreboding and a crisp beauty to the proceedings.

Unless works best as a commentary on the modern view of women’s writing which is, in many ways, still relegated to a less worthy sphere in the world of literature. Benjamin Ayres and Brendan Coyle are wonderfully hateable as Reta’s clueless new editor Arthur Springer and an intrusive journalist respectively, both of whom ignore Reta’s actual literary output in favour of gossip and scandal from her private life. After all, “It’s your inner life that comes out in your writing,” Springer helpfully informs Reta after inviting himself to dinner at her house.

Norah’s story is at its most compelling when she remains the enigmatic, silent cipher at the periphery of her own story. Doing so, Norah resists the many readings of her actions that both her family and the wider community try to inscribe on her. Is this just a phase, part of a lifestyle choice? Is she rebelling? Incompetent? Protesting? Hiding? Norah’s silence enables her to avoid being tied down to a single explanation, much in the way her Goodness sign rejects any definitive readings.

Unfortunately, however, this requires Norah (and by extension, Hannah Gross) to be the silent cipher at the periphery of her own story. The film’s self-awareness at the troubling nature of yet another heroine whose story is told through the interpretation of other, often masculine, voices, does not quite make up for this issue either. Furthermore, the film’s ultimate explanation for Norah’s homelessness creates far more problems for the narrative than it solves, and undermines much of the goodwill that the film had garnered up to that point.  At the risk of giving too much away, the eleventh hour reveal of a (far more interesting) character, who is key to the movie’s action, puts into question what the focus of the movie should have been. Gilsenan’s profound words during the Q and A afterwards, that “Homelessness isn’t an existential state,” get muffled somewhat in the film. As it goes, the conclusion to Unless is too cut-and-dry to offer any lasting commentary regarding homeless issues.

 

Unless screened Wednesday, 22nd February 2017 at 8:50pm at the Light House Cinema as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival. 

 

 

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