Niall McKay met director Macdara Vallely to talk about his feature, Babygirl, which screens this weekend as part of Ireland on Sunday, the IFI’s monthly showcase for new Irish film.
Armagh-born writer/director Macdara Vallely’s first film, Peacefire won best first feature at the 2008 Galway Film Festival. His second feature Babygirl, about a Puerto Rican teenage girl in the Bronx, premiered at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival and opened in the US last year. Macdara moved to New York over a decade ago and has earned a living as a furniture mover and a musician before settling on screenwriting. He now lives in the Bronx, which is the location and inspiration for Babygirl. Niall spoke with Macdara at his adopted office at a cubicle in the New York Public Library.
How did you get started as a filmmaker?
I came to the making of films in an indirect way. I didn’t go to film school. I’d been to theatre school, which I thought was a total waste of time. I don’t really do well in those kind of academic environments. Back in 2004, I brought a play called Peacefire to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. I toured with the play for three months. I just thought that there’s got to be a better way than this. I wanted to turn it into a film, but I never set foot on a film set. So I wrote a short called The Love Bite.
I’d been in New York about five years and there’s no access to funding here. It’s all private. Your resource here is human capital. I pulled about $3,000 together and got together with these guys, Samuel Crow and Ramon Wilson, and we shot this thing [The Love Bite] in six days with a digital camera. It was a great experience because it was like going to film school in a way. You learn some very important lessons, like don’t be stepping in front of the camera when you are rolling.
What happened to it?
It ended up making money, which is quite impressive for a short. It won best first short in the Galway Film Fleadh in 2004. My next short was Fiorghael (2005), an Irish language short. I was working with Tamara Anghie. She’s a fantastic producer. We had a very different experience because it was funded by the Irish Film Board and shot on 35mm.
How did you come across the story for Babygirl?
In New York, you spend a lot of time people-watching. One day I was on the train in the Bronx and I saw a Puerto Rican mother and teenage daughter on the train. The girl was reading a book and the mother was on the phone. This guy gets on the train and he starts eyeing up the daughter. He came across as a bit of a creep, to be honest. The daughter was having none of it. So then the guy started chatting up the mother. The mother was loving the attention and flirting back and then the three of them got off the train together. I was just left with the question of what happens next? So I went home started writing the script.
How long did it take you?
I banged it out in three weeks, which is great. Sometimes it can take three years. I just tried to imagine what would happen next. I tried to avoid the pitfalls of this kind of story. I didn’t want to see the girl as a victim. I wanted to see her as a proactive person who was trying to take control of her own destiny. I am a bit bored with that victim-characterization, particularly of woman. So once she started fighting back against this guy it became a lot more interesting from a dramatic point of view.
Did you do an outline or just write the script?
It’s very hard to give a hard and fast answer to that question. It depends. The scripts that I’ve been most happy with haven’t started out as an outline but more as a little idea like the girl on the train. Typically what will happen is that I’ll write a lot and once I have the raw material, I will then shape and form it from there. I could end up with a first draft that’s 160 pages long. But I think it’s very important not think too much but let the characters propel the narrative and see where it takes you.
Honestly, the outline thing is pretty helpful for funders but it can really stultify the creative process. Your conscious brain can’t create. It can criticize. It has its place but the writing comes from somewhere else.
So you don’t work off a treatment?
A treatment is a piece of prose, it’s not a piece of drama. What I am interested in is drama. I am sure there are people that really love writing treatments and are really good at it. I am just not one of them. It’s probably best to write the treatment after you’ve written the screenplay.
But you treat writing like a 9–5 job?
I don’t really think you can call it job. It’s not really work in the sense that its not hard labour. I feel very lucky to be able to sit up in that library and write. But I think a big thing is routine and just being able to set aside the time. It’s easy to fall out of the routine.
Do you work on character arc?
I find it uncomfortable talking about the writing process. I don’t think there’s any hard and fast rules. I just write. The conscious brain helps you when something is not working. It gives you certain tools. Things like characters arcs are useful to have because otherwise nothing happens but I don’t start with that. That comes later. That comes with the critical brain.
But you’ve been doing this quite a while now. Is there an inherent ability to know what form or shape a story should take that you would not have had your first day writing?
Absolutely. You have an intuition for when something is wrong. And finding out where it’s wrong. It’s like rot. Maybe you develop a nose for where it’s wrong and you go in and fix it.
How did you put the film together?
Really, it’s all David Collins from Samson Films who initiated the film. He had seen Peacefire in Galway and liked it and asked me to stay in touch. I sent him the script and he liked it a lot and said he would work on it if he could find a producer in New York.
He found R. Paul Miller, who produced a John Sayles film called Lone Star and also The Secret of Roan Inish. We shot in New York in the Bronx but we did all of our post-production in Ireland. Paul raised private equity and the Irish Film Board put in money for the post-production.
What was the budget?
You’ll have to ask the producers. But I make very small films. Peacefire cost $200,000. Our production budget was very modest. We shot the film in 16 days. But despite the New York location there’s a strong Irish element to it. Brendan Dolan is the composer, I am the director, Samson Films is the production company and the film was edited by Nathan Nugent (Waveriders, The Door, Sensation). I’d never worked with an editor before and I resisted the idea but working with that guy was a great experience.
Do you find yourself improvising on set?
It’s mathematics and economics. You can divide the amount of scenes by the number of days and you have your plan. We had one and a half set-ups. So I didn’t have much room for improvisation. I don’t like saying to the DOP ‘go in there and cover that for me and we’ll make it work in the edit.’ Everything is edited in the camera and executed. If something’s not working then you go to plan B. We were shooting 12 pages a day. You can achieve that if you plan. The most valuable resource that you have is time on your set.
How did you decide on the tone?
Well I never play it for laughs. I think personally that there’s a very fine line between comedy and tragedy. The best comedies are tragic at their heart and the best tragedies are somewhat comic. The comedy has to be inherent in the material. Restraint is an important part of my process. I like an audience to lean forward. I do not like to shove certain stylistic or tonal elements down their throat.
How did you find the cast?
Both Peacefire and Babygirl deal with young people so you don’t really have a place to go find them. The girl that plays the lead in this film has never acted before. We’d been working for about two and a half years and not found what we needed. I was going to film schools, theatre schools and on the last day of auditions the second to last girl to walk in was Yainis Ynoa. It’s hard to describe but I just got this gut reaction when she walked in the door. She hadn’t opened her mouth. She’s a 15-year-old girl from the South Bronx that lived the life of the character. Actually, she’s probably tougher than the character, but she has this amazing sensitivity, creativity, and awareness. She’s just one of these people that pops on camera. You take this big risk when you hire a first-time actor. She’s not experienced, she has no agent, so we had to deal with her family. But I think she’s the best thing about the film.
Did you decide on a style to the film?
Well the style should suit the story. I am not one of these people who wants all my films to look the same. So we used handheld and we use a tripod. I did tend to use a lot of static wide shots and two shots with the girl and her mother. I like to see two people having a conversation. At times they were in profile and they looked like a mirror image of each other, which was great because my character was struggling against the idea that we are all almost destined to become our parents. The Bronx is visually a very intense place. We tried to move the camera around in that environment and it was too much. So we kept it wide and let the action take place inside the frame.
So how do you earn a living from filmmaking?
It’s not easy. It’s more complicated when you have people dependent on you to eat. [Macdara has a wife and a baby daughter.] I don’t mind suffering for my art but usually what happens is that other people have to suffer for my art. But I am very lucky that people think that I can write. Screenwriting is what pays the bills. But that’s recent, up until then I was playing music and I’d worked for moving companies.
What sort of things are you commissioned to write?
I write feature-length screenplays mostly. It’s a good learning process to work on commissioned work. You have to bring all your skills to the table. It can be more challenging because it’s not something that you initially wanted to a talk about.
What’s your next project?
I am going to Beirut in the Lebanon in a few weeks after the Tribeca Film Festival. I will be there a couple of weeks doing research for a script. Most of it is set in Beirut but it has a kind of Irish connection as well. It’s great.
Might there be some emotional similarities between Beirut and Northern Ireland?
They’re both post-conflict societies. There are a lot of similarities. That’s what you realize. People ask me how can I write a story like Babygirl about a 16-year-old Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx but the story came out easier than Peacefire, which was based on a character who was my age and grew up in exactly the same estate where I grew up.
There’s this fallacy that you should only write about what you know. I understand what people mean by that but if you only wrote about what you know you’d be very limited.
This article originally appeared in Film Ireland magazine Issue 141, 2012.
Niall McKay is an Emmy award-winning independent producer and director. He is the director and curator of the Irish Film New York and the co-founder of San Francisco Irish Film Festival and Los Angeles Irish Film Festival.
Babygirl screens on Sunday, 2nd February 2014 at 13.00 as part of the IFI’s Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.
Producer David Collins will be present at the screening.
Tickets for Babygirl are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie
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