How did you learn to write screenplays?
I didn’t have any formal training as such but Screen Training Ireland ran some really good training courses and workshops, and they were absolutely fantastic. I learnt a lot from that but it was very daunting too. That was when I was writing the feature, but in terms of The Door… The Door kind of wrote itself based on the testimony.
How did the testimony help you?
It’s a very short testimony, a few pages, and once I worked out a structure for it, starting at the end then revealing what happens, it came together as a series of vignettes or memories. It’s as if the man, Nikolai, is trying to recollect what happened to him and make sense of it. They’re like separate moments that he’s just remembered, key moments of what happened.
Instinctively, I guessed that a lot of the drama should happen offscreen, for example, the scene with the doctor where he’s obviously going to tell them that their daughter is very sick, it seemed better that he didn’t say anything. I learnt through trying to write that scene that really you can say everything you need if you just set the circumstances up right and then let the audience join the dots. I was lucky with the actors because their faces said so much, more than any words could. This project was quite unique in terms of how it came together.
You had a background in producing, what made you want to write and direct a short?
I actually started off in fine art, in sculpture, and I’ve always been interested in the idea behind something and in communicating that idea. I was always interested in the creative end of things and I’ve always written bits and pieces, scraps of things. When it came to film, myself and James Flynn, my partner, set up a company to make films but we weren’t really concerned whether we were producers or what. It wasn’t that I wanted to be a producer; I just started off that way. It was a fascinating way to learn about the industry because you see every aspect of filmmaking. It was a very valuable experience. I was honoured to produce H3 and Inside I’m Dancing but, as a producer, I found that it was hard to get the creative fulfilment I wanted so I just felt it was time to try and do it myself and be more involved.
Had you any other short-film ideas that you were considering before The Door?
Yes, I’d written something very different which was fictional but I’d been reading short stories all the time, looking for something, always trying to work out what would be a good one to do. It was only when I found The Door that I really felt, okay, this deserves to be made. It was strong enough for me to ask other people to be involved. I felt the subject was important and that gave me great strength. It brought the right team behind me.
How did you find Voices from Chernobyl?
I was reading the Guardian book reviews and it was reviewing the book. There was one little excerpt about Nikolai stealing the door and driving it on the back of his motorbike through the forest at night, and, as an image, I thought, ‘Wow! That’s amazing and it’s a true story.’ I thought it was very Gogolesque, so I immediately rang them up and ordered the book. As I read it, I just thought, ‘Wow!’ We bought the rights to that story. It just stayed in my mind and once that happens it just takes on a life of its own.
Had you any problem getting the rights?
No, Svetlana [Alexeivich] had the rights to the book but we haven’t been able to get hold of Nikolai. We tried in both Kiev and Belarus but he seems to have just disappeared. I really hope some day we’ll find him.
How did you go about adapting it?
The main thing was the structure because if you reveal what it’s all about at the beginning then it loses its point, so the idea was to keep the reveal until the end. I love the idea of playing with the audience a little bit, you know, set it up so that they don’t know whether this person is a burglar, insane or what, then let them see just enough to wonder what’s going on. They have to work it out, then they realise, oh, something terrible happened to this man. It makes it a much more active experience for the audience. I think in a way that’s what gives it emotion; it comes at you sideways. A lot of people say to me, ‘I didn’t realise it was about Chernobyl until the end.’ I think that’s great because at the end of the day it’s really about loss.
Was that the theme? Loss?
Yes, and also about reclaiming human dignity, which is all you can do when you’ve lost everything else. I think the idea of a ritual is reclaiming something so that, even if you lose the most precious thing in life, you determine the manner in which it will be dealt with, and, for Nikolai, that was within his own family tradition with the door. It gave him a sense of peace that he’d buried his daughter in the manner that was correct for him.
How did you come up with what I call the ‘running man’ opening?
That came about when we saw Pripyat in the snow on the Internet. We knew we just had to go there. We waited about six months to get permission then went to have a look and it’s just the way the city is, it speaks so much, long streets, big buildings, the dereliction, the Ferris wheel and abandoned fairground, the child and lost childhood, everything about that was perfect. We walked and walked around the city and very quickly said we’ll use this shot, this angle, whatever. You see man being a victim of his environment, this huge structure and this little man lost within it looking for somewhere. The idea just works. We were lucky to go to Pripyat; without that we would’ve had to use the apartment. It wouldn’t have had the same impact.
How many drafts did it take?
Really only one or two, with some tweaks; nothing changed significantly. In the last version I added in the evacuation scene or made it a little bit bigger. We did get feedback from an editor friend of ours, and a couple of other people, but it just felt right. With your first project, I guess it’s important to follow what feels right to you emotionally and visually.
Did your experience as a producer help you when you were writing?
One thing, when you see a script being shot and then see what gets edited and what gets used, it helps you understand what’s not needed. I think if you get to the point where you can see in advance – I won’t need this, I won’t need that – then that’s when you really understand the craft.
One of the things that struck me about The Door and As If I Am Not There is how you have a knack of being able to say so much using just images and pictures with absolutely minimal dialogue. In The Door, for example, there are only 25 lines of dialogue in some 17 minutes of film. The main character, Nikolai, barely says 100 words yet it’s so powerful, the emotions it conveys.
Yes, I think both subjects are quite strong and sad, people in desperate situations, so you probably don’t need to talk your way through them in that sense. It’d be different if they were sitting in a café or something. I do think we rely way too much on exposition and it makes you very impatient, you know, when someone tells you something, then shows you, it gets very annoying. Exposition is to be avoided wherever possible. Assume the audience will know and work out what they need to work out because, by and large, they can.
I think it’s always interesting as an exercise to take out the dialogue in your scenes, just take it all out then see what bits you really need. If you’ve written all the reactions and thought processes well, then you’ll find you probably don’t need half the dialogue. You’ll find the story will tell itself. Just put back in the bits you really do still need. Dialogue takes much longer to hear than you ever think. When you write it you think it’s okay but if you’re actually waiting with a camera for someone to speak you find yourself asking, do I really need so many words. It’s important to learn economy of words.
Had you any other titles in mind other than The Door?
Probably, but I just liked The Door because it’s so symbolic and strong and it doesn’t give away anything emotionally or story wise. It’s a bit deadpan but it just seemed to the point. It’s about the door but obviously, at the end, it’s not.
Were there any unforeseen difficulties or anything that with hindsight you’d like to have added in or changed?
No, I don’t think so. Sometimes I wonder should I have done this or that, but it’s in terms of staging, camera movement and that kind of thing, not in terms of the beats of the story. You could fiddle away forever but then you wonder would you change the emotional dynamic if you did this or that.
Because it’s a deeply personal true story were you ever tempted to fictionalise it to make it easier to shoot somewhere else?
No, not really, not with this one, but I could understand that you might need to in some situations, especially with some victim stories where people are still struggling emotionally to come to terms with things. You might need to dramatise it to make things more active.
How did you deal with the ethics of telling such an emotionally challenging true story, respecting what people went through?
It’s a great honour to be entrusted with that kind of material and a great responsibility as well. You’re kind of blessed and cursed if you have good source material because you really want to deliver something that is of the same standard and impact as the book, but you also have to think long and hard. Are you doing justice to this person? Are you portraying them correctly, their situation and reactions?
I love the idea that I’m like a torch shining a light on something I believe is important and, through illuminating it, other people can see it and make up their own minds. You’re part of a process that starts with the real person and then, through someone like Svetlana or Slavenka – author of As If I Am Not There – they manage to bring it all together, and then I do my little thing and an audience can see it.
It’s nice to be a part of a process of communication like that but it is something you really wrestle with. You have the pressures of dramatic storytelling and you have to respect your audience as well. You can’t just document the truth; you also have to present something that works in the format you’re choosing to tell the story in. It’s something you grapple with all the time.
The usual rule of thumb is a page a minute but you managed to make a 17-minute film from a five-page script. That’s quite unusual.
I know, the producers were a bit worried. I think it’s the fact that one line can suggest so much. When we went there, the land and the people were so visually and emotionally beautiful, and with all they’ve been through, there’s something very poetic, very romantic and very tragic about it.
Did you always want to direct or was there a point when you said, you know, I’d prefer to let some else do this?
I guess it always feels like the safer option to hand it over to somebody else, but, at the same time, I just felt so personally involved with it and my whole motivation was to make something myself. The hard thing is you’re actually trying to convince people that you’re going to do something that you don’t know you can do yourself, and that is terrifying. You’ve nothing to fall back on but it’s a great adventure. When I found the team that I was lucky enough to find a lot of those doubts were dispelled and their belief, skills and experience carried me through.
What advice would you give to any writer who’s thinking of directing?
First of all to make absolutely sure that they really, really love their material and that they know it really well, so that any actor, any member of the creative team, can ask them any question and they can answer and give a reason why this happens or that happens. It’s your only job. Everything else someone will help you with, but if you don’t know your material you’re not in a position to try and direct it. It’s your responsibility.
The other thing, I think it’s critical to get the right team, to get people who see the project the way you do, that you complement one another and have the right approach, because if there’s a mismatch it’ll make it difficult for everybody and the work will suffer. Find likeminded people who you trust and who boost each other’s confidence.
What about a director who’s thinking of writing his own material?
If you’re strong visually or story wise then it should be reflected in the script but I think it’s really important to learn as much as you can. Get advice, training, help, whatever, even read Syd Field. It was the first thing I did years ago and while it’s very formulaic in some ways, it has the basis of everything in it. It’s good to learn as much as you can, you can reject or turn it on its head later but it’s important to learn a bit about it first.
For me, in terms of scripts, structure is the most important thing; it’s the backbone of everything. I think if you get the structure right you can forgive having too much dialogue, too little dialogue, too much whatever, but if the structure’s all over the place, no matter how great the scenes or dialogue, if the pace is all over the place and there’s no clarity, the audience will get impatient. I would say to anybody who’s writing, structure is the thing.
How do you look for ideas? What attracts you to certain things?
I trawl really widely. I spend a lot of time in bookshops – I guess that’s one of my primary sources – or scouring the papers for interesting ideas or stories. I suppose what I’m always looking for is a kind of human dilemma, you know where you would say, what would I do in that situation, or imagine if you were here and all this happened, how would I survive, what would I do? Something that has an emotional impact for me, something I connect to. Does this feel real? Is it something I can relate to? Is it strong enough?
Have you ever written anything in another format?
I wrote a novella, for my own amusement, and also some short stories. Short story is an amazing format. I love it. I think it requires rigour and craft to be able to write something like that and not overwrite it. Short films are exactly the same but I think a short film should work more like a poem, present an idea and leave you thinking about it. I think a really powerful short film should provoke thought rather than just tell you a story so that when you leave the cinema you have questions in your head. If you can do that you’ve done your job well.
With the Oscar® nomination, Variety in Hollywood naming you one of its ten directors to watch in 2011 and the impact of your first feature, As If I Am Not There, what are your plans for the future?
It’s really heartening to get that recognition but, at the end of the day, you’re only really ever as good as your next script. If they – people in LA – like your script they’ll talk to you, if they don’t they won’t. But it’s always helpful to get the recognition. At the moment I’m adapting a book by an American author, Daniel Woodrell, called The Ones You Do. It’s deliberately completely different from what I’ve done before. I’ve also just bought the rights to four short stories by a young Peruvian writer, set in Lima, about people struggling on a day-to-day basis with quite big decisions. My plan is to weave them together somehow but I don’t know if it’ll work yet.