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