Maureen O’Connell takes us behind the scenes of her short film Proclaim!, which is now available to watch online.
Behind the Scenes Images: Marta Gomez Seanz and Joby Redmond
I came home from London in late 2015. I had trained at RADA for 3 years and had tried living in London as a poor actor for 2 years afterwards. It was punishing. When I returned, I wanted to be involved in any production that was about 1916. Everything was cast or in production already. So, I started about my own project.
Initially, I wanted to make a short film about Cumann na mBan as my grandmother, “Nell O’Sullivan”, had been an active member. I began research in October 2015 and found that it was difficult to shoot a simple story about the Cumann na mBan but I stumbled upon the story of how the proclamation was printed. It was a great story:
Three Dublin printers summoned by Connolly to print 2000 copies of the proclamation in one night and in secret to be proclaimed by Pearse in the morning and their struggles to achieve this. They didn’t have enough type, wax or paper but with ingenuity, they did it.
It was just too good a story that had never really been told or indeed, dramatized before.
Although, my Granny would have been in Limerick at the time of the Easter Rising, I decided to insert her into the story just as a hat tip to her. I make a cameo appearance in the film as my Granny.
I shot Proclaim! over 5 and a half days in February 2016. I was the producer as well as the director so I had to be super organized. I had wonderful support from the cast and crew, though. They were a really patient and easy-going bunch. This made things a lot easier for me.
I had done some of my research at the National Print Museum and they informed me that if I had wanted to film there that they would let me use the old printing press and they’d print off proclamations for me for the film. I don’t think they thought I’d take them up on the offer but I contacted them and they were so helpful and friendly. I featured the two printing volunteers from the National Print Museum in the film itself as a thank you to them, Freddie Snowe and Alfred McCormack.
On the first day we shot for just a few hours at Mary’s Pub in Wicklow Street. It was a good idea to begin lightly as it settled the nerves and got the creative juices flowing. It was a great location and the owners were absolute legends to us for allowing us to shoot there.
The next day, I shot in the wonderful Joyce Pharmacy, Sweny’s; off Pearse Street. They were so good to us. Initially, I had asked for only a half day to film in their shop but we ended up needing the full day and they let us have it! This was an incredible kindness as, it was, like every other location we shot at, free of charge. Sweny’s became the famous Co-Operative Baby Clothes Store from which Connolly printed his subversive socialist newspapers – and the very first Irish Proclamations. Thanks to the staff at Sweny’s and to our brilliant production designer, Joby Redmond who did an outstanding job.
Shooting outside the GPO was the best day, for me. I had contacted MovieExtras.ie and asked if they had any extras who wanted to be a part of the film to play people listening to Padraig Pearse proclaiming. I said it was unpaid but they’d get coffee and tea, etc. I sent a picture of the type of costume they’d have to wear if they wanted to be in it. I didn’t expect any of them to turn up, to be honest. But all of a sudden, I started getting emails from them individually. I emailed everyone back and told them the schedule and what time to be there at – Café Kylemore, O’Connell Street, 9am – and thanked them… a lot!
Again, I didn’t expect them to turn up.
Forty people in 1916 costume turned up at Café Kylemore at 9am. I couldn’t believe it! I had a 14-foot jib crane with our camera on the end on a remote head, Michael O’Kelly in full Pearse military regalia proclaiming the proclamation and 40 costumed extras… and I didn’t even have a permit. I’d only asked the Garda Sergeant at the local Garda Station for permission and had told him, I’d have a tripod and 10 extras. It was awesome!
In fairness, the Gardai who were there helped us out so much. We only had enough crew to do specific jobs but no one to look after our bags and equipment under the GPO pillars. But the Gardai looked out for our bags and so we shot the whole proclamation scene in 3 hours in front of the GPO on a very early rainy February morning in 2016.
When I conceived the script, I knew how I wanted to shoot it. Lots of shallow depth of field, quick and sudden pans and sharp edits to give the feeling of tension and pace but also to get right into our characters’ faces and feel the emotions with them and to go on their journey.
I also wanted to track and move the camera as much as possible to give a sense of urgency; the printers had to get their mammoth task done fast with no time to spare. I also used lots of racking of focus back and forth between characters, but I racked focus very fast back and forth, again, to bring a sense of urgency.
I shot it to be black and white and had it graded. I wanted to bring out the lines in the printers’ faces, to be able to see the ink and dirt in the crevices of their expressions.
I really enjoyed working with Cian Moynan the DOP. He is a painter and really understood what I wanted from the outset. He did an amazing job especially considering he and I had never worked with a 14-foot jib crane before and our only practise of it was taking it out and assembling it the night before in my sitting-room trying to make sure we knew how it worked!
I had written the Street Urchin character into the film so that I could use her songs that she sings as a way of linking scenes and also as a kind of natural soundtrack at points during the film. In pre-production, I selected the songs I wanted Laura Murphy (Street Urchin) to sing, with ‘The Parting Glass’ being the most important. I also sent this song to the other actors in the cast as I wanted them to sing it with her in the final part of the film.
We recorded these songs separately at my house in my sitting-room. Laura sang them herself and then, the rest of the cast joined her for the final chorus of ‘The Parting Glass’. I was delighted with what they did with the song and how it brings us through the film to the final scene of the proclamation being proclaimed.
I was initially going to use a heartbeat running throughout the film again to raise tension, but when I tried this in post-production, it didn’t work as well as I had imagined. So, I decided on the use of bodhrans to give a rhythmic sense of a heartbeat throughout the film. I worked with the amazing composer Joseph Conlan and he created the beautiful instrumental soundtrack.
I cast the actors mainly from the website Film Network Ireland – it has since become a Facebook Group. All of the actors were outstandingly brilliant and so lovely to work with. I was blessed! I rehearsed them all at different times at my own home and did a rehearsed reading with all cast and crew. It was exciting to see and hear it come alive.
I played the part of my own Granny, “Nell O’Sullivan” and I remember standing on set in Sweny’s Pharmacy, in costume, and getting ready to act and at the same time giving directions, thinking quietly to myself, “What am I doing?!” My legs were shaking but I was wearing a long skirt and no one could see that – if only they knew!
I had a tiny budget of €1200.00 starting out. I then used my rent money to pay my way through the shoot. After editing it, I set up an indiegogo crowdfund to finish it as professionally as possible with a sound-design and grade. I’d no idea what I was doing and had never done a crowdfund before. I needed money fast though to try to finish it in time for the Galway Film Fleadh submission deadline, so I took the shortest campaign one can choose; 15 days. If you hit your target, it takes another week to go into your bank account. I asked for €2000.00.
I pushed it as hard as I could on social media and emailed everyone I knew and had ever worked with. I knocked on the doors of every local business. We managed to raise €2836.00 to my utter surprise!
I got it finished but regardless, the Fleadh did not select it in the end. However, it went on to win many awards and got selected for festivals both national and international securing many nominations along the way.
I’m really pleased with Proclaim! and I think everyone who worked on it is too which is great. We worked so hard and I think it shows. No one was paid. It was all voluntary. Like the printers who printed the proclamation are legends, so too, the cast and crew who made Proclaim! are legends.
And I salute my cast and crew and thank them from the bottom of my heart. I hope anyone who watches it hereafter enjoys what we all worked so hard to make!