From the Archive: Lenny Abrahamson


With the news that Lenny Abrahamson’s much anticipated Frank has been selected to screen as part of the Premiere’s section at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, we publish online Ross Whitaker’s interview with Lenny Abrahamson, which appeared in Film Ireland magazine earlier this year.

Read on to find out about Abrahamson’s evolution as a filmmaker and his latest film Frank.


What Richard Did, Lenny Abrahamson’s new film, fully five weeks into its theatrical run in the Screen Cinema in Dublin and was surprised to find a packed house.

It’s so rare these days to see a film run and run but word of mouth had propelled Richard forward week after week and punters were still going in their droves long after the initial release. The film had touched a nerve and there’s something about the intergenerational dilemmas of the film that confronts all members of the audience regardless of age.

Abrahamson expertly drops us into the world of Richard Karlsen – his rugby buddies, pretty girlfriend and loving family – before his perfect existence is ruptured by one out-of-character but violent act. As a viewer, I was so enthralled by the drama that I could have sat there for many more hours in this world, so the ending was like being woken from a sleep.

The reaction in the cinema was astonishing. There was a palpable tension in the room, a silence, and as the credits rolled a spat in the cinema began between an older woman sitting behind us and a group of south Dublin teenagers on the other side of the room. There were shouts and jeers.

They had seen the same film but had experienced the world they encountered from two different perspectives but rather than exit normally they felt the need to act and react. The film had pushed them to the edge and they couldn’t leave quietly.

Abrahamson does endings well. All three of his films engage the audience but also leave them with plenty to think about. It’s a powerful mix that challenges us and is an antidote to mainstream Hollywood fare. He’s not afraid to leave a few loose ends.

Now that he has made three films, it’s fascinating to look at his body of work. He has convincingly made films about very different worlds; in these worlds, he presents powerful archetypes with great sensitivity, managing to avoid the stereotypes that we encounter too often in film. I put it to him that he perhaps has a variant on the bullshit-ometer, a kind of instinctive cliché-ometer.

‘I’ve had that from the very beginning. I used to talk about off-the-shelf scenes and you see that all the time in films – you feel that you’ve seen the same scene a thousand times with a slight variation. It’s not always bad. You can use patterns very creatively and, for example, the Coen brothers often play with scene shapes and always find something interesting to do with them. I think even before I made a film it struck me how different real life is from what you see in films, how different having a real conversation is from the standard shots you see in films. It comes down to that, how you temper the dramatic with the banal and yet you owe it to the audience to try to engage their interest; to me that’s the greatest challenge.’

His films are consistently minimalist and never outstay their welcome. They have a starkness, a distinctive style and yet they manage to avoid alienating the audience.

‘I think those things can go hand in hand but it’s important not to be patronizing towards the audience, to say, “well I’d like to do something more adventurous but the audience would never understand it.” I want to communicate so I make work for myself but I also think of my work as something that is going to be watched. I think about it as an object, that is flowing, that I can shape and has a pattern and I want it to be balanced and interesting and my faith really is that they will be the same for anyone else that watches it. At the same time, it’s not like I have a massive audience compared to something like The Guard. I don’t have a magic formula but I don’t technically separate myself from the audience; I want their experience of the film to be along similar lines to my own experience. I was really surprised by the reception of What Richard Did because I thought of my three films is was the most challenging in a way and I was really quite surprised that it took off.’

While they could hardly be called blockbusters, all three of Abrahamson’s films have done well at the box office. It can be said sometimes that Irish audiences don’t want to attend Irish films, particularly more challenging work, but the success of his films gives lie to that assertion. His style is distinctive – not what most would consider commercial – and there is a consistency of approach across his work. This isn’t, he says, something that he set out to do.

‘There was no kind of plan really. One of the interesting things for me was that despite the fact that I didn’t work with Mark [O’Halloran, writer of Garage and Adam & Paul] this time, What Richard Did still felt so much like one of my films. With this film I tried to do what I always do, which was to immerse myself in a world and in a central character and take that as a starting point and then, along with the screenwriter Malcolm Campbell, let my impulses direct me.

‘I think what I bring to my work is a certain kind of non-sentimental empathy. I can find the human dimension in the central character. I had done that with characters that had been reviled or dismissed in my previous films but with Richard you had a guy who was at the opposite end of the social spectrum. What I’m interested in is how easily we like to stereotype people and caricature them, so in that sense there is a continuity to the three films. If I consistently approach characters like that then that’s the flavour that carries from film to film.’

So, does he have a system or approach that he employs with drawing his characters?

‘It’s really just through my own mulling and pondering that I feel myself getting closer to the character and then in the case of What Richard Did it was casting a character and then building the film around that person. I hadn’t done that before and we did a lot of reworking of the script from talking to the actors to try to make it feel more real.

‘What I did on What Richard Did was a little different to what I had done on previous films in that I was consciously going for something a bit more immediately real or more overtly natural. To achieve that, I wanted to immerse myself in a literal way in those characters and that’s why we cast the film so early. It was too long since I had been in that world and this film was different from the other two in that the other characters were less overtly archetypal, they were greyer characters. So we cast it early and we spent time having conversations with the characters but not improv. Having those conversations made me feel confident that we weren’t just making it up.’

All of his films feel like very complete, confident works and I wonder does he feel that he is evolving as a director?

‘I worked in different ways on What Richard Did than I had in the past. I did much more work with the actors in particular, including a little bit of improv in the film though I’m generally quite careful about improv. I think it almost never works unless it is used very carefully and usually in advance. We didn’t just say, “we’re in a room, start talking,” we knew what they were going to talk about in, for example, that scene the night after the pub. We had done it lots and lots in rehearsal and they became fluent at being in the moment but also managing it, some part of the film being outside of them, and knowing where the scene should go. It wasn’t that kind of unstructured improv that sometimes isn’t so good.’

With three strong films under his belt, Abrahamson feels that he has developed as a filmmaker.

‘I think I was much more confident in this film about throwing stuff away on the day and changing it and rewriting with actors on the day. I was confident enough to be able to say, ‘this isn’t working, let’s try it a different way,’ so being responsive but still being fast enough to stay in the schedule. Those are really practical things that you gain through experience and confidence. I’ve gotten better at working with a tight budget and a tight schedule. I’d like to not have to do it but it’s important to be able to do it.

‘I had done a lot of commercials before I did my first film but at the very beginning so much of your energy is directed internally at your own anxiety and worrying about how it will work, how you’re being perceived and whether you’re any good. Those kinds of things don’t go away at all but getting to the point where you can actually focus on what you’re doing and not the peripheral elements is a really great thing. I think as well there is an energy on set and there is a lot at stake and the pressure that comes from having limited money and many people to manage and it’s very easy for that to turn into panic and the wheels can come off very easily. If the director can be calm and confident then that just allows the energy to be directed in a constructive way.’

His next film, Frank, is a comedy set mostly in the United States about a young wannabe musician, Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who discovers he has bitten off more than he can chew when he joins an eccentric pop band led by the mysterious and enigmatic Frank (Michael Fassbender) and also stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Scoot McNairy. However, he explains that this doesn’t mean he is leaving his roots behind.

‘A lot of the film does happen in Ireland, so there is a connection to home but its origin and its ultimate place isn’t Irish. I’ve been involved in it for a couple of years and I’ve moved it very much towards what I want it to be. It feels like a film of mine. I’ve always had an interest in a certain kind of comedy, traditional slapstick but in a very arty form. Kaurismäki is a very big influence on me and Frank plays to that element of my style. It’s a much more expansive, much more playful film. It’s different because it’s a comedy and nobody dies at the end but it’s still a left-field, stylized film. If I had an overall plan it would be to continue making the films I’ve been making here in Ireland but also to sometimes do other things as well and some bigger projects. I want to keep making films here and I don’t want to make them too much bigger because part of the pleasure of doing films here in my own country is that I don’t have to compromise too much.’


This article originally appeared in Film Ireland magazine, Issue 144, Spring 2013


From the Archive: Lens Flair – an interview with Director of Photography PJ Dillon






PJ Dillon is one of Ireland’s most respected cinematographers. His long list of impressive credits includes his work on Vikings, Ripper Street, My Brothers, Kings, The Runway, Rewind – his directorial debut and Earthbound, Alan Brennan’s Irish sci-fi comedy, which opened in Irish cinemas earlier this year. Dillon has just been nominated for Best Cinematography in Television Drama by the British Society of Cinematographers. Steven Galvin caught up with PJ Dillon to discuss his craft and his work on Earthbound.



Can you tell us a little about your introduction to the film business?


I graduated from DIT in 1989. I’m from Listowel in Kerry and fortuitously at that time Jim Sheridan was making The Field. John B Keane was my neighbour and he knew what I was studying in college and trying to get a break into the film industry. He came over to me one evening and told me about The Field and said, ‘Do you want me to see if I can get you a job?’ Of course! So he took me to meet Jim Sheridan on a recce and I got a job as a trainee clapper-loader on the second unit.


It was always my intention to be a cinematographer – when we were making films in college I always gravitated towards being a cameraman and that side of things. After college I tried all the usual routes and getting onto sets pestering cameramen and production managers but had no success at all, but there weren’t actually that many films being made at the time – maybe two or three a year at that time. The other way into the business was to work on commercials. But at that time it was inconceivable that you would come out of college and start working as a cameraman. Back then you had to go through the hierarchy of starting as a trainee clapper loader, becoming a clapper loader; then a focus puller and a camera operator and then after you’d gone through all the levels eventually a cinematographer.


Which I presume is a great learning curve?


Yes – a fantastic learning curve. Even today it stands to me. It gives you a real appreciation of the difficulty in other people’s jobs. And standing on set seeing other people solve problems is a great way to learn how to solve problems! And of course there’re times when you’re looking at people working and you say, ‘Well I’m never going to do it like that!’ It can work both ways.


Which also feeds into an understanding of the collective nature of filmmaking itself.


Absolutely. And it is completely a collective, collaborative effort. It is one industry where if you isolate yourself you won’t do very well. Your work will be better the more inclusive you are in the film industry.


What was it that attracted you to cinematography in particular?


Probably like everyone else I went into college thinking I wanted to be a director. While there, I got my first experience of actually working with film cameras, shooting film, and the whole process of actually exposing film, watching it in a screening room was completely magical to me. And I thought ‘this is it for me. I’m not going to find anything better than this.’


So the technical, practical side fascinated you?


Well, yes – and it was being able to use the technical practical tools in an aesthetic way. I remember we’d shoot our own college films on 16mm and of course we’d be delighted we made this but then I’d go to see films in the cinema of artists at the top of their game and I’d be thinking ‘how did they make it look like that?’ And as you get better and start to achieve that, there’s a real thrill and something deeply satisfying about it.


And I presume that would still be a part of the way you work as a cinematographer – figuring out how you achieve a certain look, like a puzzle. There’s a script there, there’s an idea there, and you have to work out how to get what you and a director want.


Absolutely. For me, references play a huge part in any discussion I have with a director. Once I read a script and get a feel for what it’s about, the next step is to talk to the director and what can they compare it to and what are their references. The references might not necessarily be films; they may be photographs or paintings – it can be quite abstract. But they’re about tone and mood and emotion and all of those things that go into getting what you want.  It’s not that you’re not trying to copy something else but more about the feel of it. So yes, looking at other people’s work and asking how they achieved that.


You’ve recently worked on Ripper Street and Game of Thrones. How does working for television differ from film?


There are differences. With Game of Thrones the budget is 7 or 8 million an episode and, funnily enough, you probably have more money and more time than you would shooting a low-budget feature. But generally shooting a film is quite different in that you do have more time. I think TV is very much story-orientated; it’s about getting into scenes quickly and getting out quickly. Being very efficient. With films you tend to have the freedom to linger a little more. There’s more breathing space.


Ripper Street and Game of Thrones – they’re very stylized and there’s obviously a certain look that has to be adhered to. How does that work across a series with different DOPs?


It depends. With Game of Thrones the first DOP to shoot on it the year I worked on it was Kramer Morgenthau. And he was incredibly helpful to me, telling me what he was doing and involving me in his testing period. He wanted me to be able to continue the look that he was developing. That was particularly rewarding. But I’ve also worked on TV shows where there’s been no communication between DOPs. That can happen, sometimes, for budget or scheduling reasons. And sometimes it could be a different director with a different vision or the producers might want you to disregard what’s come before.


Moving on to Earthbound. How did you originally get involved?


Alan [Brennan, director] and Heidi [Madsen, producer] rang me out of the blue. They handed me a script. I read it. I thought it was really funny and quirky. I met the two of them, liked them and agreed to do it.


And working with Alan?


It was Alan’s first feature so it was quite daunting for him, but he met it brilliantly. I thought he was inventive and temperamentally just great. Alan has great quirky ideas and he did a great job executing them, particularly working with a limited budget and schedule – it was a 4-week shoot. Alan had a clear idea what he wanted and the kind of films he liked. In this case there were a lot of comic book references we discussed to capture the mood of the film. It was great fun to do.


Can you tell us a bit about the format you used?


We shot anamorphic. We were shooting on RED with anamorphic lenses for widescreen. And that was for two reasons really – Alan wanted to get that ’70s American sci-fi feel. Also anamorphic is used in a lot of major action movies. It’s got a very particular look – that widescreen look. What anamorphic lenses do is they squeeze the image, which is then unsqueezed again when you project. They have some very particular characteristics which viewers might not be aware of but subliminally the anamorphic lenses are working in a particular way that give you that epic widescreen Hollywood look.


The other thing about them is that they have a characteristic where they flare in a different way to standard lenses – that blue flare you get when for example headlights are on screen – that’s a classic artifact of anamorphic lenses. That’s what Alan was looking for.


Obviously, there’s much debate at the minute about the digital revolution in filmmaking. What’s your own preference – shooting on film or digital?


If I’m to be brutally honest, my preference would be to shoot on film, though the choice very much depends on the specific project and I’m quite happy shooting on digital formats. Certainly there’s greater immediacy with digital – you’re now shooting on high-definition formats and viewing on hi-def monitors on screen. Pretty much what you see is what you get – though obviously there’s a certain amount of grading that goes on afterwards and so on – but that was not the case on film. On film what you were looking at was a video tap – the on-board monitor. You weren’t looking at the end product. That immediacy appeals to directors and producers because they really know what they’re getting.


As good as the Arri Alexa is, which would be my personal favourite of all the digital formats, I still don’t think they have the subtlety that film can achieve. However that gap has closed radically even in the last three or four years.


You used the Arri Alexa on Ripper and Game of Thrones.  What is it about it that you prefer?


I think it has a greater dynamic range and the camera themselves feel more film intuitive. If you’ve come from a film background, the Alexa just feels more like a film camera.


Do you have any particular advice for someone looking to get started in the business?


Persevere. It’s funny; some people have it as a life ambition while others just seem to fall into it by accident. But what I would say to people who want to be DOPs is ‘shoot’ – just go out and shoot. If no one’s asking you to shoot for them, generate stuff yourself. The technology is really affordable now. When I started you couldn’t just go out and shoot because a roll of film cost 100 pounds and you’d have to rent a 16mm camera and you’d have to process it. To shoot something was an expensive thing to do. That’s not the case anymore. Anyone who’s serious can get the money together, get their hands on a decent inexpensive camera and start learning to shoot! Shoot as much as you can. That’s one of the reason Filmbase was founded – to make filmmaking accessible and that is even more so the case now. Technology is getting cheaper all the time. And getting better.


This article originally appeared in Film Ireland magazine, Issue 143, 2013







From the Archive: From the Biscuit Tin to the Big Screen

Horgan Collection - Cork v CMYK

Once home movies and now national treasures, Tony Tracy takes us through some vintage homemade cinema from the Irish Film Archive.

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 135, 2010

Considered until recently amongst the most personal and ephemeral forms of moving picture production, home movies are experiencing a burst of institutional recognition and appreciation as artefacts of wider cultural value. Festivals celebrating ‘orphan films’ in the late 1990s began this rediscovery followed by the tentative reflections of film archivists – largely descriptive – on home movie materials found in their collections. A similarly inspired, though more academic, joint project between the IFA Irish Film Archive (IFA) and University College Cork –Capturing the Nation – gave rise to the recent Home Movie Heritage Day at the IFI as part of Heritage Week 2010.

A selection of the IFA’s holdings were screened from five collections (material from a single donor or source), each prefaced by an introduction from a person related to either the shooting or preservation of the collection before it was lodged with the archive; what might be termed its ‘biscuit tin’ phase.

Actuality film

The Horgan Collection (1910–1920) must count amongst the nation’s cultural treasures. Actuality film is a non-fiction film genre that uses footage of real events yet is not structured into a larger argument like a documentary. Contemporaries of the Lumière brothers, John and Edward Horgan’s earliest images resemble the iconic actualities of the French pioneers of moving pictures. Made in their native Youghal, Co. Cork, their early films are local actualities comparable to canonical films like Train Arriving (L’arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat) and Workers Leaving the Factory (La sortie des usines Lumière). Like those films, they are not technically ‘home movies’ but small gauge films made for paying audiences, usually screened as part of a variety show. Clearly inspired by the Lumière’s examples they share formal similarities in their static framing of crowds moving frenetically around the camera like the unaware specimens of scientific observation, save for the occasional young boy who has spotted the camera and feels compelled to interrupt the illusion of invisible observers.

One early film is notable for the variety of headgear worn by the crowds, a lost fashion custom that provides a useful index of social class and function. We see men in top hats and neat formal suits, in sailor’s caps and garb, humble caps and women in broad hats and shawls. It is a fascinating window on a disappeared world. If the future direction of cinema, as has sometimes been suggested, was a duel between the literal tendencies of the Lumières and the dreamlike impulses of their neighbour and competitor Georges Méliès then the Horgan brothers sought to include both. Also screened was a tantalizingly short extract of a film that animated the clock tower in Cobh and moved it around the main street in the style of a Méliès trick film.

The films of the Egan family (the selection dated from 1937–1943) are precisely what the term ‘home movies’ summons up. In her touching and affectionate introduction Valerie McCarthy spoke of her father as ‘a wonderful man’ and his pride and love for his home and family is palpable in the films he left them. They depict an idyllic middle class family life of happy children in happy surroundings; there is wonderful colour footage, for instance, of a young girl chasing geese in a farmyard that evokes the imperishable innocence of childhood innocence as well as the gaze of a doting father.

The gaze was not all male, however. The films of Margaret Currivan included footage of her daughter Helen’s communion in the 1960s. As with all her films screened, there was a cinematic sensibility at work that went beyond mere ‘recording’. The short film intercut images of the Holy Communion event with more abstract footage shot separately to communicate the mystery and iconography of the sacrament. Here was a fascinating attempt to not only document the externalities of this right of passage but to interweave an interpretative framework of reference that, in hindsight, tells us much about Catholic spirituality of the period.

Catholic viewpoint

This was not the only footage interpolated by a Catholic viewpoint. Irene Devitt deposited the film collection of her late uncle Fr Jack Delaney with the archive in the 1990s. In introducing extracts she recalled childhood holidays where she and her sister travelled from the Navan Road (where they lived) across the city to his house in Dun Laoghaire.

Fr Delaney’s footage was perhaps the most poignant of the afternoon and an explanation of why this is would require a social history of modern Ireland. Along with footage of his family, Fr Delaney had a notable interest in filming the marginal figures of Irish society – the impoverished ‘working classes’ walking through streets and inner city laneways, poor children playing amongst city rubble, a Corpus Christi parade utterly unimaginable today and an ‘open day’ for the girls of the notorious Magdalene laundry – in this instance the ‘Gloucester Diamond’ laundry on Dublin’s Sean Mac Dermott Street, which Irene recalled being brought along to as a young girl. The unique status of this last footage has led to it being used frequently by chroniclers of the dark history of institutional abuse: States of Fear, Sex in a Cold Climate and elsewhere. The images here are haunting because of what we now know; not so much for what they show as what they conceal. A slow panning shot across the happy faces of these young women gives them a humanity no amount of reports will, and complicates our response as only the photographic image can. Who are they? What ‘sins’ did they commit? Their happiness is troubling because we distrust its status and consequently become retrospectively implicated in their incarceration.

Formally, Fr Delaney’s footage seems rather conventional with a preference for assembling a line of people and having them march towards the camera. But this repeated choreographing has an unexpected resonance as the gaze of successive groups who have been beyond the boundaries of ‘official’ history – written and visual – confront the gaze of the modern viewer. This is especially true of the ‘Magdalene sisters’ but it is also true of Dublin’s poor, revealed in a shockingly fresh and intimate manner that recalls Roberto Rossellini’s groundbreaking post-war films Rome, Open City and Germany Year Zero. Given that this footage was made in the 1950s one wonders if Fr Delaney saw those films. These images of Ireland’s ‘ordinary people’ make one long for what might have been – a neo-realist inspired Irish cinema movement in the ’40s, ’50s or ’60s that drew on Rossellini’s Christian humanism. A real sense of solidarity and shared humanity emanates from Fr Delaney’s moving pictures, a welcome contrast to the increasingly common consensus of the Catholic Church as devoid of empathy and interest in the poor.

Flying saucers

Reflecting a more privileged social background, Mark Leslie introduced an edited version of one of his well-known family’s cherished home movies. Them in The Thing is a sci-fi pastiche from 1955 made by his father Desmond Leslie (author of the best-selling Flying Saucers have Landed). Inspired by the contemporary craze for ufos, the Leslie film not only reflected cold war paranoia and the reach of American popular culture but offered an insight into Irish cultural diversity during the ‘hungry ’50s’. Filmed in colour around Castle Leslie in Monaghan, the film offered us a cosmopolitan corner of Ireland where, in contrast to mass emigration that dominated the daily lives of many, an imaginative and bohemian Anglo-Irish family amused themselves with genre spoof featuring family friend Sir Patrick Moore. Them in The Thing – sadly missing its pioneering electronic soundtrack – is part of the Leslie family archive of home movies which would, should they be screened more widely, complicate and enliven histories of post-war Ireland.

Apocalypse then

Michael Coyle’s films of the Vietnam conflict in 1967 stretch the terms of ‘home movies’ to encompass amateur footage of an Irishman fighting in an American war in Asia. Given such exotic provenance it was ironic to discover that this footage was perhaps the least surprising of the afternoon. Coyle’s personal story is a fascinating one and we shared his regret that so much footage he shot was lost as he scrambled to escape burning tanks. What remains seems familiar from Apocalypse Now and its descendents; a sense intensified by the use of The Doors on the soundtrack (introduced by IFA for this presentation), which had the effect of flattening the images. This was a pity because beyond such surface familiarity there is material that augments and diverges from Hollywood imagery. The footage is clearly made from within the conflict; his fellow soldiers remain undisturbed and natural as they roll through the Vietnamese jungle in tanks and armoured carriers. There are surprising shots of the young American soldiers posing with friendly Vietnamese families and truly exotic footage of an indigenous tribe – the women topless, men in loincloths, returning the baffled gaze of the passing ‘foreigners’.

In his opening remarks at the event, Ryan Tubridy described the makers of the home movies as ‘historians’. Are they? If the ‘making’ of history is the analysis and interpretation of primary sources then some of the filmmakers, by virtue of selection, point of view and editing are comparable with the traditional historian. Most, however, simply point their camera and shoot. But – as was evident from the IFA event – what they shoot is widely varied: birthday parties, communions, parades, local events, faux-narratives, foreign wars – ordinary people in ordinary and sometimes extraordinary circumstances. Perhaps what this question of meaning poses more generally is a hermeneutic or interpretive one: how are we to understand the value of home movies? Clearly this depends, in a way that art arguably doesn’t, on the questions one poses the material, on what the viewer is looking for. What is interesting and exciting about the private films screened at the ifiis that for the most part the viewers of these films were for a long time asking relatively private questions like ‘who’s that?’, where’s that?’, when’s that?’ This came across in the short but sincere and highly personal introductions to the films, which gave them both context and great personal value – rescuing them from the ‘orphan’ category. But as such material begins to seep into the public domain (as they quite literally did in the company of strangers that afternoon) the questions, and responses, become more generalized and varied and the films yield up meanings their makers may never have imagined nor intended. It takes courage to allow home movies – capsules of private memory – enter into the collective memory. But, ultimately, both the private and public spheres are enhanced by the process.

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 135, 2010

Tony Tracy is Associate Director of the Huston School of Film and Digital Media NUI Galway



From the Archive: Finding the Cinematic Story in History


Díóg O’Connell compares Rabbit Proof Fence to The Magdalene Sisters, arguing that, in order to draw due attention to historical events, filmmakers must learn to subordinate factual accuracy to the creation of the emotional structure required by good storytelling.

People or ciphers?

In his book ‘A Whore’s Profession’, David Mamet states that “people have tried for centuries to use drama to change people’s lives, to influence, to comment, to express themselves. It doesn’t work. The only thing the dramatic form is good for is telling a story.” This statement is useful as a yardstick in measuring the differences between two recent films, coincidentally emerging from opposite sides of the world at the same time, telling similar tales but in remarkably different ways. Rabbit Proof Fence and The Magdalene Sisters are parallel films in many respects. Both take an aspect of national history and explore it through the medium of film. In each case, the historical incident is shameful and embarrassing and to many unforgivable. The circumstances that facilitated these acts of inhumanity often involved the acquiescence of most of the population in Ireland and Australia. The Magdalene Sisters is not just an indictment of the church-run institutions but of the whole society. Parents actively or through facilitation allowed their daughters be incarcerated in institutions for ‘crimes’ such as flirting, having a baby outside of wed-lock or being raped. Rabbit Proof Fence deals with a colonial mindset that allowed ‘half-caste’ aboriginal children be taken from their community in order to be trained as domestic servants for the white population. Based on social-Darwinian theories of evolution, the law that facilitated this was predicated on the notion that the aboriginal race could be ‘bred’ out in three generations.

What interests us here is not so much the similarities in terms of content, but more the differences in terms of form and how that subject matter is dealt with in terms of ‘story’. It is at the level of storytelling that these films diverge. In dealing with real life historical events, the narratives constructed to tell the stories are quite distinct. The Magdalene Sisters tells an episodic tale of life in an institution in 1960’s Ireland. The film opens with one of the most memorable scenes of Irish cinema in recent years when Margaret’s story is introduced. The drama of the event is conveyed through a series of looks and a powerful soundtrack, creating early expectations of an important cinematic experience.

The film is structured around the story of three girls, Margaret, Rose and Bernadette, who were sent to a Magdalene Laundry in 1964, a tragic tale of stolen years. While the title suggests some relationship among the characters, this is never fleshed out, either as allies, friends or symbolic sisters. Instead of giving the actors complex characterization to explore, the narrative presents action sequences for the characters to play out. To borrow a term from narratology, these characters are externally focalized. Because the audience rarely glimpses their story from an internally focalized position, or from the characters’ own point of view, the story experience is kept to the surface. The audience’s encounter, therefore, of this film is to view the characters’ lives from a distance. The only possibility for connection with the characters is as cyphers that represent the social injustice and cruelty of the time. What this requires is not emotional involvement but intellectual engagement. This goes some way in explaining the acceptance that these characters bring to their situation as being anti-heroic. However, this resignation, while it may be true to life for some, is not what the dramatic structure requires for telling a story. Although Bernadette’s character is set up to rebel, the fight is half-hearted and she eventually gives in.

While it may be argued that this is the experience in such institutions and that the film is therefore more ‘truthful’, it can equally be argued that not every aborigine that was taken away from their community escaped and walked a distance of 1200 miles home. But by telling this story, Rabbit Proof Fence does justice to the historical story while getting across all the attached emotional baggage that such historical incidents inevitably arouse. It takes an historical incident and creates a story world that mixes fact and fiction in a filmic way. Consequently, this film generated far more discussion and debate in Australia than its Irish counterpart did in Ireland. Despite the subject matter of The Magdalene Sisters, it failed to arouse a response or debate in the public domain.

(Re)creating the world

The Magdalene Sisters is a film that is episodic in style and littered with statements. The nun counting her money and the nuns eating a ‘full Irish breakfast’ behind a lattice-like partition while the girls make do with bread and water are scenes that display the injustices and double-standards of the church that an Irish audience is no longer surprised at. In terms of the overall narrative, however there is no progression acted out in this film. A series of episodes strung together displays an anger that is very real and valid as revelation after revelation is made in Ireland with regard to the past. But in terms of the film, this structure hinders the story by allowing it to degenerate into farce at one level (in the out-door Mass scene) and implausibility, at another level, when the two remaining characters, Bernadette and Rose, finally decide to escape.

Because the characters do not serve any distinct or key role within the story world of the film, the focus of responsibility and blame is sometimes blurred. It is difficult not to see Margaret as in some way culpable of hastening Crispina’s journey to the ‘lunatic asylum’, thus presenting a narrative glitch that leaves a very uneasy feeling in the viewer. If it was the intention of director Peter Mullan to set up a link to the ‘culpability of insiders’ convention in many films dealing with the Jewish experience in German concentration camps during the Second World War, then this intention would only succeed in further removing us from the emotional realm: inter-textual inferences demand intellectual engagement of a sort that is in stark contrast the contained emotional storyworld of Rabbit Proof Fence.

Rabbit Proof Fence is the story of one girl’s determination to go home; not to be subjected to a fate decided by outside forces. This film uses the medium to convey a tale of epic proportions, survival against the odds, triumph in the face of adversity. It does so in a uniquely understated narrative style. It is not a mainstream, classical narrative in the Hollywood sense. It eschews plot points and act breaks yet it is conventional in the sense of a linear progression and by remaining focussed on cause and effect. It creates a storyworld that is hermetically sealed and therefore true to itself.

Whereas the characters in The Magdalene Sisters are externally focalized, not driven by any inner feeling, and do little about their circumstances until the plot needs to be wound up at the end of the film, the main character in Rabbit Proof Fence is consistent from the beginning. She is driven by her deep, inner emotions (like great classical rather than postmodern characters) and acts out of a personal need that is stronger than any outside force. Molly’s character is built and focussed as the audience gets to know her complexity at each stage of the narrative: her courage and intelligence. She displays a dogged determination in contrast to the fatalism of the Irish characters that are powerless in the face of the ideological state apparatus. Interestingly, in The Magdalene Sisters, it is Crispina who displays the greatest complexity; but she is not one of the central characters.

The Magdalene Sisters’ narrative progresses in a straight line. The events are used to convey details of a story that does not present any surprises, suspense or conflict whereas the narrative in Rabbit Proof Fence brings the audience along while submerging them more deeply at each key stage. Through the use of cinematic devices, the alien environment that is Moore River is evoked through internal focalization. Molly looks up at Mr. Neville, Chief Protector and the audience is given her point of view. While Olive’s recapture is used in Rabbit Proof Fence as motivation to escape, driving the main character in a heroic way; in The Magdalene Sisters Una’s return is what makes Margaret change her mind, as she fatalistically climbs back into bed. While this may be more in keeping with the ideological critique of the myth of heroic action, it contravenes the expectations of the universal story whereby the audience is brought out of ‘reality’ to another world, the world of the story.

The cinematography reveals what Molly ‘sees and hears’ in Rabbit Proof Fence, how she accumulates information and acts on it to achieve her journey’s end. The landscape plays its part narratively, the fence poetically linking Molly to her mother at key moments while the soundtrack is central to conjuring up the aboriginal world. Each sequence is linked aesthetically by scenes of landscape giving this film a visual evenness that is absent in The Magdalene Sisters. Margaret’s opportunity to escape is rejected when she returns voluntarily to the institution. Unlike Molly she is trapped by her trepidation, and what has now become an alien environment, the outside world. Whereas hope drives Molly, fear drives her Irish opposites.

Rabbit Proof Fence tells of a collective experience through the tale of one character yet it is not hindered by sticking rigidly to every historical detail. The Magdalene Sisters expresses many historical details (that are undoubtedly true) but by shunning the narrative device of following the path of a defined storyline it fails to convey a sense of ‘truth’ with regard to its subject matter and ultimately does a disservice to the tale.

Both films present very different experiences for the viewer. Rabbit Proof Fence tells a classic story of survival and triumph in a universal way. It tells of an Odysseus-like character that draws on key human characteristics of determination and will in order to embark on a near impossible journey. While one film clearly engages on an emotional level, the other keeps the viewer at arm’s length, inviting intellectual engagement in parts. The audience response of laughter to many scenes in The Magdalene Sisters might suggest that these stories are still too raw for Irish audiences to engage with at any deep emotional level. These films thus support the position that history is a good place for fact, detail and argument whereas drama, as Mamet states, is a domain for recounting a story. Both disciplines serve separate functions for a nation to recount and explore aspects of its past.

What is interesting about these films is that they both enjoyed commercial success and relatively long box-office runs; in terms of recent Irish cinema, The Magdalene Sisters was significantly more commercially successful than most other Irish films. On the other hand, as a record of an historical event and an expression of the human spirit, it is clear which film will resonate. By telling a story, the purpose of the dramatic form, and creating such a distinctive storyworld, the spirit of Rabbit Proof Fence will linger long after the memory of The Magdalene Sisters has vanished.

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 92, 2003

Díóg O’Connell is a lecturer in Film & Media Studies at IADT, Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin. She completed her PhD in 2005 entitled ‘Narrative Strategies in Contemporary Irish Cinema 1993-2003’ and has published articles and critical reviews on this period. Her book, New Irish Storytellers: Narrative Strategies in Film is published by Intellect, 2010.


From the Archive: Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins: A Look at Bernard Herrmann


His career bridged Welles and Scorsese, taking in Hitchcock, Truffaut, and DePalma along the way. Lir Mac Cárthaigh explores the life and work Bernard Herrmann, one of the greatest film composers of all time.

Collaboration often produces the greatest works of art. Sometimes the interaction between creative minds results in a work which neither would have been capable of alone. Unfortunately it is often easier to ascribe great works of collaboration to a single author; we bury Fletcher beneath Shakespeare, Macquet beneath Dumas, Lish beneath Carver. Today, when we listen to a minister’s speech or see the latest collection from a fashion designer we don’t think of the shuttered backroom where a faceless team do the work, we think only of the person who gives their official seal to it. While film is perhaps the most collaborative artform, the glory tends to accrue on the director. A mighty name like Welles, Hitchcock or Scorsese brands a film, defines it the work of an auteur, the men and women who labour in what David Thomson thoughtfully brands “the ‘subsidiary’ arts” tend to be forgotten; the writers, composers, designers and all of the other artists whose contributions can make or marr the finished work. One of the above-mentioned directors, Alfred Hitchcock, thoroughly disliked sharing credit, yet on one occasion he stated that his direction accounted for only two-thirds of a film’s impact, that for the final third he relied on the music of Bernard Herrmann.

Herrmann’s career in movies began during Hollywood’s ‘golden age’ and continued into the rise of the Vietnam generation of filmmakers. His first film score was written for Welles’s Citizen Kane, his last for Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Herrmann was a child prodigy, he won a composition prize at 13, and founded and conducted a chamber orchestra at 20. According to his daughter Dorothy, writing music came easily to Herrmann; he would start early in the day, and would often have his work finished by nine in the morning. When still in his twenties Herrmann was hired as staff conductor for CBS Radio, where he also presented Exploring Music, a programme devoted to airing unheard and underappreciated work. At CBS Hermann made the acquaintance of the airwaves’ best-known boy-wonder, Orson Welles. In his conversations with Peter Bogdanovich (later published as This Is Orson Welles) the director remembered a 1935 radio production of Hamlet which demonstrated the composer’s uneven temperament. Herrmann quarrelled with director Irving Reis seconds before the play was due to go on air, he broke his conductor’s baton and threw his script away. Welles managed to get Herrmann to go on with the show, but had no time to re-order his notes. The result was the music was one cue out through the entire performance: “We had fanfares when it was supposed to be quiet, approaching menace when it was supposed to be a gay party, and all live; it was riotous.” Welles, who liked to work with others of his generation, felt an affinity with the young composer, and Herrmann shortly became “an intimate member of the family.”

Herrmann was contracted to write the music for Welles’s first motion picture, but the project kept changing; Heart of Darkness became Smiler with a Knife, which finally gave way to Citizen Kane. The delay to production gave Herrmann time to compose his first symphony, featuring the heavy horns, prominent percussion and plucked strings which would become familiar features of his work. Herrmann’s concert pieces already included the impressive cantata ‘Moby Dick,’ whose sinister Salvation Armyish hymn presents a dark evocation of Melville’s novel. According to Welles, he and Herrmann worked “almost note for note” on the Kane score, as they had done for many years on radio. The film provided a real showcase for the talents of the young composer, as it allowed him to write in many different styles, from the Souza-esque ‘March of Time’ newsreel parody in the ‘News on the March’ sequence to the burlesque song ‘Oh, Mr. Kane,’ which Welles claims was based on a march he heard in Mexico. The highpoint of Herrmann’s score is the aria he wrote for Sallambô, the opera starring Kane’s second wife Susan Alexander. Welles told Herrmann in a telegram “here is a chance for you to do something witty and amusing,” Herrmann did so, writing the area in too high a key to show that the singer is out of her depth. The non-linear structure of Kane allowed Herrmann to flit between themes of levity and gravity; he evokes the sour dustiness of the empty Xanadu mansion with dark, doomy woodwinds, while Kane’s ebullient youth at the Examiner newspaper is recalled with giddy strings and xylophone. Herrmann was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Kane, but lost – to himself – for his score for The Devil and Daniel Webster (Aka All That Money Can Buy). The Daniel Webster score saw Herrmann return to the briny depths of his ‘Moby Dick’ cantata, using a hornpipe-flavoured melody which contrasts bright and carefree passages with moments of doom.

Herrmann continued to work with Welles on the director’s ill-starred second feature The Magnificent Ambersons. Ambersons was to be even more astonishing than Citizen Kane, but was mutilated by executives at RKO. Part of the film’s splendour was the lavish score, based around Emil Waldteufel’s waltz ‘Toujours ou jamais.’ Thirty-one minutes of Herrmann’s music was removed by the studio after they re-shot the ending; new music by RKO composer Roy Webb was substituted. When Herrmann viewed the studio’s cut of the film he insisted that his name be removed from the credits.

The mid-1940s have been referred to as Herrmann’s ‘romantic period.’ Scores from this time include landmark music for Jane Eyre, Hangover Square and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. The plot of Hangover Square involves a composer who suffers from bouts of murderous amnesia, and afforded Herrmann the opportunity to write the chilling, manic and intense piano concerto Macabre, performed by the deranged man in a burning auditorium. Herrmann’s all-time favourite score was for Joseph Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir; he told his brother Louis that the music for the film expressed his feelings better than anything he’d done before. In the film a widow falls in love with the ghost of a sea captain; Herrmann’s biographer Stephen C. Smith believes that the composer felt an affinity with the strong but lonely Mrs. Muir. Doomy woodwinds ascend, becoming strings; bright passages of piano and glockenspiel conclude in maritime bells and a harp. The dark/bright contrast used so often by Herrmann occurs as the low woodwinds and gong push their way into slow harp-led strings. An urgent, startling passage of strings foreshadow Herrmann’s work on Psycho, but are modulated here by horns, finally giving way to a thematic four-note figure played on a flute. Around this time Herrmann was working on his only opera, Wuthering Heights, with a libretto by his wife Lucille, based on Emily Brontë’s novel. The opera shares some of Mrs. Muir’s melody and, according to his daughter Dorothy, Herrmann loved to play it, considering it his masterpiece. The composer refused to make any changes to the opera, and consequently Wuthering Heights was not performed until some years after his death.

Perhaps Herrmann’s greatest claim to fame results from his collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock. Herrmann worked with Hitchcock over an eleven-year period, scoring some of the English director’s most famous films, among them The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Know Too Much and Marnie. Three of these, Vertigo, North By Northwest and Psycho featured credit sequences which married visuals by designer and animator Saul Bass with Herrmann’s music. These opening sequences are much more than a simple list of credits, instead they provide what film critic Leonard Maltin describes as an ‘overture’; a self-contained prelude to the film which gives the audience an idea of what to expect. The spiral device of Bass’s Vertigo credits is complimented by the central six-note figure that Herrmann has devised for the film. The composer passes the spiralling figure back and forth between the strings and a harp, producing a disconcerting sensation augmented by terrifying horn notes which cut across it when the titles appear on the screen. As well as displaying his talent for writing unsettling stings, Vertigo also allowed Herrmann to exercise his romantic side; his daughter Dorothy believes that her father felt an affinity with the film’s theme of romantic obsession. Scottie, the smitten hero, doesn’t speak to his inamorata Madeleine for the first half hour of the film, his feelings for her are expressed only through the music. Allowing the composer to establish the most important relationship of the film, rather than stating it directly through dialogue or voice-over, shows the trust which Hitchcock had in Herrmann at this time.

Herrmann’s most famous film score, and a good contender for most famous film score of all time, was written for Hitchcock’s Psycho. According to his daughter, the composer himself was less than enthusiastic about the film while working on it, regarding it as “a cheaply-made exploitation film.” When the film proved successful Herrmann changed his mind, and would often cite it as a favourite score. The film had a stringent budget, Hitchcock insisted on making it for under $1m; it was to be shot in black-and-white using the crew from his TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Herrmann composed the score entirely for strings, claiming that a black-and-white picture called for an equally black-and-white sound. While Herrmann wrote various fills for Psycho, they are quite minimal; the chief musical ingredient is the well-known theme which runs through the film, played on different combinations of instruments to suit the various moods. The ‘master of suspense’ became one of the first victims of the shocking music for his film; Hitch thought that a contemporary jazz score would suit the Psycho, and was keen that the composer use no music during the murder scenes. When Herrmann screened the film for him he showed him two versions, one with no music during the murders, and a second with the ‘shrieking strings’ which have become synonymous with the film. Herrmann tells how when Hitch saw the scored version he exclaimed: “‘We must have the music, of course!’ And I said, ‘But you were against it.’ And he said, ‘Oh, no. All I made was a poor suggestion.’” Herrmann went on to compose one of the oddest ever movie ‘scores’ for Hitchcock’s The Birds, an electronic collage replicating bird noises played on an electronic keyboard.

Herrmann and Hitchcock’s partnership came to an end when they quarrelled over the music for Torn Curtain. The director was working with two young stars, and was under pressure from Universal to deliver a film with a ‘happening’ score. Herrmann suggested that he was not the best person to compose the music they wanted, but the studio insisted. The musicians who recorded the score were so impressed that they applauded it; Hitchcock was not so happy. After hearing Herrmann’s work in progress he insisted that recording be stopped, even though the score had already been paid for. The music was finally composed by Briton John Addison, but Herrmann’s surviving prelude, a swooping, western-style theme foreshadowing some of John Williams’s best-known work, gives an idea of how the score could have been. Whether by coincidence or not, Herrmann’s parting from Hitchcock marked what is generally considered the end of the director’s great period.

Through his friendship with Alfred Newman, the musical director of 20th Century Fox, Herrmann came to compose a number of fantasy and science fiction scores. Descending chords and a moody organ give his music for Journey to the Centre of the Earth a suitable chthonic feel, while the eerie theremins from The Day the Earth Stood Still are used melodically, rather than to produce an ‘effect.’ According to his friends Herrmann was always challenged by writing ‘monster music.’ In order to get the desired accompaniment to a giant octopus attack in Beneath the Twelve Mile Reef, Herrmann used an orchestra featuring nine harps. Fellow composer Sir Malcom Arnold remembers asking him if the sound of nine harps was much different from that of two; Herrmann replied: “No, but I do it anyway.” The composer’s talent for scoring unusual situations was tapped by fantasy filmmaker and stop-motion legend Ray Harryhausen, with whom he worked on four films. One of the most famous moments from Harryhausen’s films was greatly enhanced by Herrmann’s music; the duel between Sinbad and the skeleton in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. Rather than settle for standard ‘dramatic music’ Herrmann used castanets and xylophones to weave a complex percussive rhythm and evoke the rattling bones of Sinbad’s skeletal opponent.

Herrmann once told Hitchcock that if he had another life to live he would like to be the landlord of an English country pub; the composer’s affection for England led him to relocate there from Hollywood in the late 1960s. He had grown disillusioned with the film business; he saw the kind of symphonic film music that he composed give way to popular music and a commercially viable soundtrack. Despite commercial pressure, creative filmmakers will always have a use for creative musicians; Francois Truffaut, familiar with Herrmann from his work with Hitchcock, had him score Farenheit 451 and The Bride Wore Black. When Herrmann asked Truffaut why he had chosen an old-timer like him rather than a young French composer Truffaut replied “they will give me the music of the 20th Century, but you can give me the music of the 21st century.”

It was not long before a new generation of American filmmakers emerged and, like Truffaut, sought out the man who had written the scores for the films they loved. When Brian DePalma was trying to attract investors for his film Sisters he assembled a sample murder sequence cut to Herrmann’s music for Psycho. It seemed logical that when the film was financed he seek out Herrmann himself to score it. DePalma’s editor Paul Hirsch describes a dishevelled Herrmann arriving in a rumpled overcoat flaked with dandruff, and with a mad gleam in his eye. His score for Sisters does not look back at Hitchcock as much as DePalma’s films do, but is flavoured by his more recent science fiction work. The romantic score for DePalma’s next film Obsession is far more reminiscent of Herrmann’s earlier work, but not without innovation, using a choir to help lift the score from its darker recesses of organ and orchestra. Paul Hirsch remembers Herrmann crying for ten minutes after a studio screening of Obsession; he tried to comfort the composer, telling him how beautiful his score was. Herrmann agreed, but told the editor “I don’t remember writing it.”

Although Herrmann’s health was beginning to fail, his spirit was never stronger. He had befriended maverick filmmaker Larry Cohen, and scored his movie It’s Alive. Composer and friend David Raskin remembers Herrmann telling him “The new guys, they want me!” Herrmann’s final score was written for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and while it uses more contemporary instrumentation, it is a score in the grand tradition of Herrmann. The soundtrack is Herrmann’s swan-song, a sinister, brooding and menacing piece of work. The main theme switches back and forth between two separate pieces; a sombre horn theme with building snare drum, and a saxophone piece reminiscent of ‘Harlem Nocturne.’ The dual nature of Travis Bickle’s theme music reflects the fractured nature of his personality and the danger which squats behind the insomnia-creased surface. Readings from Travis’s journal are accompanied by plucked double bass and horns, the sound of the city’s polluted lungs wheezing in and out. Continuing the organic feel, Herrmann provides a heartbeat drum sound when Betsy, the object of Travis’s fixation first appears by his cab. Friends of Herrmann’s suspected that knew he had little time left; he worked hard to finish the score, pushing to get it completed. According to David Raskin, all of the orchestra sessions for the film were finished, only one cue for a small jazz group remained, which was scheduled for a later date. Hermann decided at the last minute that he wanted to record it before leaving the studio. It was the 23rd of December 1975, the next day he was dead.

Herrmann was known as a somewhat difficult person, Ephraim Katz characterised him as “a pedantic autocrat and uncompromising perfectionist”, Scorsese called him “a marvellous, but crotchety old man” and Ray Harryhausen believed that his brash, cantankerous exterior hid a wonderful person. Editor Paul Hirsch remembers having dinner with a cranky Herrmann after the composer had seen a rough cut of Taxi Driver. Herrmann complained that the soup was too cold, and dismissed a fan seeking his autograph. In one of the changes of mood which seem to have been normal with Herrmann, he later gave the autograph hunter a signed copy of the first two measures of the Psycho score.

Dorothy Herrmann remembers her father bringing her to see his films at the local cinema; if the sound was too low, Herrmann would complain. At a showing of Five Fingers, the projectionist responded to the composer’s grumbling by cranking the volume up to ear-straining heights, causing the other patrons to storm out demanding a refund. Herrmann’s irascible tenacity was combined with an enormous talent, he knew when the music was right even when the director didn’t. Hitchcock complained that when you worked with composers you put yourself in their hands, that once the music has been composed it can’t be changed; sometimes this can be for the best. The trouble with an auteur like Hitchcock is his unwillingness to cede control, to trust another artist to produce something which is both meritorious in itself as well as complimentary to the movie. Herrmann’s scores are among the few that can stand on their own, detached from the scaffolding of the film they were composed for. The piano concerto Macabre from Hangover Square has been performed at concerts, and the Salammbô aria from Citizen Kane has been recorded (in the proper key) by Kiri Ti Kanawa. In February 2001 the Eos Orchestra staged a concert in New York called Bernard Herrmann: More Than the Movies, consisting of selections from Herrmann’s film scores (accompanied by projections of the relevent scenes), as well as excerpts from his favourite work the opera Wuthering Heights. Herrmann’s legacy continues a quarter century after his death, his influence can be heard in the work of many contemporary film composers; Danny Elfman’s scores for Batman and Sleepy Hollow recall Herrmann at his darkest. Herrmann’s posthumous filmography is vast, his music has been used in sequels and remakes, such as Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear and Gus Van Sant’s Psycho. The number of films which borrow from Herrmann are a lasting testimony to his influence. Unlike fellow composers Lalo Schiffrin and Henry Mancini you are unlikely to hear a Herrmann theme as a mobile phone ringtone, but his music is still reaching audiences where it was meant to be heard – in the cinema.

The Bernard Herrmann Society provides an indispensible online resource; most of the material referred to in this article is archived in its entirity at

Quotations from Orson Welles are taken from This Is Orson Welles, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum and published by Harper Collins.


This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 91, 2003


From the Archive: Five Ways To Kill Your Script



Film Ireland gets some not-to-be-ignored advice from James Bartlett, story analyst to the Sundance Institute amongst other illustrious organisation.



Living in Hollywood and working as a script reader and story editor, I know that studios, agencies and production companies receive hundreds of scripts per day. The market in Europe may be less intense (and less well-funded), but either way, someone like me is going to be the first person to read your script.


Over 10 years of script reading I have noticed the same 13 mistakes appearing time and time again in scripts. These ‘red flags’ are all a reason to say ‘No’, and I devised the lecture ‘Hollywood Screenwriting: Jumping The First Hurdle’ to help writers by talking about these 13 mistakes, looking at screenwriting competitions and the industry as a whole so that they’ll have a more sellable, professional product. Whether you’re a new writer or an experienced professional, everyone makes these mistakes – believe me!


1. Spelling and Punctuation

It may seem obvious, but 75–80% of scripts have this problem. You call yourself a writer and want to be paid to write, yet you can’t spell? Or you don’t know the correct usage of ‘you’re’ and ‘your’ or ‘it’s’ and ‘its’? Remarkably, ‘loose’ and ‘lose’ are always incorrect, and Spell Check is simply not enough.


Frank is slumped on the coach, polishing off a bear. A dozen bears are strewn on the coffee table, a one man party that didn’t go so well.

The writer means a ‘beer’ of course, yet Spell Check reads ‘bear’ as a word. I’ve even read scripts where the very first word was spelled wrong! Try reading your script from the end to the beginning and keep checking, because there’s never any excuse…


2. Introducing Characters

When any character first appears, their name should be in CAPS (i.e. JOHN or WAITER). It should not be in caps in the scene description from then on, because IT gets REALLY hardTO READ when ALMOST every other WORD is IN CAPITAL letters, and secondly, it’s a nightmare for casting (unless you have hundreds of characters all named JOHN in your script).


3. Songs, Poems & Quotes

Firstly, music licensing is often complicated and expensive. Producers always cut the music budget first too, so it’s best not to keep drawing attention to it. Also, while it may seem like a good idea, what happens if the reader doesn’t know the song, doesn’t like it, or thinks it doesn’t work with the scene? Then it takes him/her out of the story, and it comes off as an attempt to manufacture emotion.


An opera aria plays on the car stereo: ‘Morgen!’ from Strauss’ Wesendonk Lieder WWV91.


The important information here is that opera is playing on the car stereo; listing the song itself is the mark of an amateur (unless of course the script is an original musical).


4. Prompts, Asides & Jokes To The Reader

This often manifests itself by showing knowledge of films, books, the film business, or the screenwriting process itself. Don’t ever address the reader outside the world of the story, just impress them with your characters, dialogue and narrative – that’s all they care about.


He is Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom, focused on his prize, moving forward despite the ghosts and ghouls lurking in the darkness, waiting for him, ready to strike.


The Delivery Guy leans against a hand truck and talks as if he were pontificating on Nietzsche’s theme of eternal recurrence.


As this happens, several people in the theatre feel great about laying down ten bucks to see this on the big screen – recession be damned!


His wife Kathleen pokes her head around the door and smiles. See, I told you we would see her again – and soon.


Her smile, the twinkle in her eyes – it’s pretty hard not to love her.


5. Formatting

Incorrect presentation and formatting makes your script stand out a mile – in a bad way – and though there are many differing opinions, in the US there are very, very strict industry standards.


Use Courier 12 font to write (no bolding , underlining, italics or colours), punch with two holes at top and bottom, and bind with brass fasteners (known as ‘brads’ for some unknown reason).


Some competitions even have categories for formatting, and the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting (the biggest screenwriting competition and worth entering) even has a guide ( so you can be sure of 10 points at least.


To learn about the rest of the mistakes, get some insider information and find out the positive steps that make your script a better read, come to ‘Hollywood Screenwriting: Jumping The First Hurdle’.

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 133, 2010

Currently based in Los Angeles, James Bartlett is a story analyst for the Sundance Institute, the Nicholl Fellowships, the UCLA Professional Screenwriting Program, the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards and National Geographic Films. He also reads for several UK regions, is the US consultant for Euroscript, and lectures across the UK and Ireland. He’s available for private consultation at

James will be in Filmbase on Thursday, 7th November to deliver his Screenwriting Pitching Workshop plus a three-hour seminar: Hollywood Screenwriting: Jumping the First Hurdle




From the Archive: What do you do with actors?

TV Drama

Illustration: Adeline Pericart


Actor/director Vinny Murphy talks about directing actors.

In this article, rather than give a ‘Tips for Directing Actors’ list I would like to try to take the subject seriously, just for a laugh.

As an actor, before I ever directed, I was often asked by directors for advice on directing actors. I was shocked by the questions they would ask. ‘What do you do with actors?’ they’d say. ‘I’ve heard they have their own language you have to learn,’ they’d say. A lot of these people had been to film school and some had made a few shorts already. They seemed to be dealing with some strange alien life form. I’d ask what had they done with these strange ‘others’ before: they either couldn’t remember or they said they’d done nothing – basically they didn’t know what had happened. It still holds true today that colleges spend very little, if any, time on this obviously extremely important aspect of filmmaking. It seems to be the last thing anybody making their first film ever thinks about. ‘The director got sucked into the camera’ is an old way of saying the director didn’t deal with the actors and, from what I hear and see, there are still directors getting sucked into all sorts of old and new cameras all over the country.

Why does this happen? I think the main reason is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of this ‘other.’ It’s much easier to talk to the DOP because you’re talking about tangibles.
The job of a director is so huge and so full of pressure that it’s very tempting to look for excuses when something isn’t working. It’s great, you can say ‘the actors just aren’t getting it, what’s wrong with them?’ and hey presto! If those useless actors aren’t getting it, what can you possibly do? The point is that it’s the director’s responsibility to create a situation where the actors can do their most interesting work. It’s not just when you talk to them, it’s the entire situation the actors find themselves in. If that responsibility sounds both huge and vague, then welcome to the world of film directing!

Question: How do you direct actors? Answer: ‘I don’t know.’ – Jim Sheridan

What Jim Sheridan meant was that he doesn’t have a technique that fits any situation. Every film is different, every actor has to be worked with differently. It’s much too personal an activity to be able to apply broad strokes. The worst thing an inexperienced director can have anywhere in their head is the notion: ‘They’re actors, they should be able to do anything.’

My favourite bad move by an inexperienced director is where they go over to the actor, talk at them for five minutes (or more, which is worse!) and walk away with a satisfied look as if they’ve just completed their part of the bargain and now it’s up to the actor. For a start, an actor can’t really take in that much information in one go. The actor is not looking at the script the way a director or a script editor looks at it. If I look at a script that I am about to script edit, I can read it and understand it very clearly. If I am given the same script because I’m going to be acting in the filmed version of it, that’s a horse of a different colour altogether.

When I’m script editing I’m looking for the high view – how the thing is structured, exactly what is it the writer is trying to say and how to make that clearer. The script editor has to be a bit hard-nosed about it, cold. So it may look like I’ve suddenly become stupid when I’m an actor and I’ve just been given a script. It’s not just that somewhere I’m thinking, ‘Oh shit, I have to perform this’, it’s that my entire relation to that script is different. I’m looking for clues to help with a very different process. My thinking isn’t so clear because, whether I’m aware of it or not, what I’m trying to do is to sink down into the script. I’m looking to go down south, to find the warmth of it, the moisture of it. Maybe, in a way, I have to become stupid in order to grow down into the script before I can grow up through it again.

Whatever way you look at it, when an actor is given a script, it’s a very different process to that of a director. And a director needs to be drawn in to the vortex that is the actor. How far to get drawn in depends on the job, but there has to be some drawing in going on – what else is there? So the director gets drawn in to the actor’s vortex and knows the actor is going to get drawn in to the director’s vortex. Knowing how much of this vorticity business you are up for is something you can only find out by doing it.

When it comes to directing actors, maybe it should be called indirection. If you tell an actor what to do, they will try to do what you tell them, unless they’re really good, in which case they will try to turn what you say into something they can work with. No actor can ‘do’ a direction. There is no tube through which a direction travels from the director’s head into the actor’s soul. What the director says will have to find a filter through which the actor processes the information and turns it into something which can be used. If the director gives the actor an image (in the widest sense of the word) the actor can take that and get something from it. What it is that they get and how they translate that into action is the mysterious part.

‘…psyche knows more what it wants with itself than I may be able to imagine or interpret.’ – James Hillman

The psyche of the actor knows more about what should be done with the scene than the director. So the job of the director is to access that and not engage the actor in a discussion about the craft. You’re trying to get the actor away from the craft. Instead of giving a ‘result’ direction like ‘be more angry,’ you might, for instance, ask if they’ve ever been so pissed off (try to avoid the word ‘angry’ – it has too many bad performances attached to it already) with someone that they wanted to physically hurt them. Now, hopefully a bunch of images floods into the actor’s head – not just one specific memory that they’ll re-enact, but a vortex (again) of images that will bring up physical, emotional and psychological activity relevant to the situation. Or maybe you’ll do something totally different. What matters is that you see a move in the actor’s eyes or something that indicates they’ve got something from you.

A particular actor who had a fair amount of experience was new to my classes. We did a scene where part of the exercise is that I don’t say a single word about the script and we shoot the first take. The scene was complex. It was about the character’s resentment towards his sister for not helping out in caring for their sick father, his own feelings of guilt for not doing more himself, his attempt to understand her and then his disgust when she refuses to commit to helping again. None of this was immediately apparent from reading the script and he thought it was about him flirting with her. He ‘thought’. There’s your problem right there, buddy. He read the script and then decided what he was going to do in advance. For the next take I told him to stop thinking and planning ahead. He gave the same performance again. I talked a bit more about not deciding anything and just listening to what she’s saying and to what he’s saying and to do it as if he’s no idea what’s going on and to just be open. We shot it the third time and he gave this incredibly complex, rich, moving and slightly scary performance – everyone in the room was in thrall to it. I asked what had he gone through during the take. Not what did the scene now mean or what did he ‘think’ of it but just historically, what had actually happened? In explaining, he gave a perfect account of all the complexity that was supposed to be in the scene.

What had happened? He had connected to the images that came to him and had stuck with them. Instead of drawing from the shallow well of what we can ‘think’ up he had drawn on the bottomless pit of all that’s unconscious, and that had guided him to a truly marvellous performance.

I’m not suggesting directors shouldn’t say anything to actors and then expect amazing performances, but that the actor needed to find it for himself. Otherwise he would have ended up trying to squeeze what I had told him out of the script. Squeezing a script is never a good idea. A script is supposed to set up images that get things out of the actor, it’s not for the actor to try to grab things out of the script.

In this country, like most others, actors find themselves turning up on set, maybe having done a play (which is a different discipline altogether) two months ago and a film the month before that. They turn up on set with no continuity of practice, no juices flowing, no warmth, no moisture. They’re dry, cold and fearful. And on a bad set what happens first thing? They’re told what to do. ‘You stand over there and say your first line, then go over there and sit down at that table for the rest of your lines.’ They rehearse; the director tells them that it’s not what they want. ‘Be more angry when you say that.’ They do a take. Nobody says anything – now they feel even colder than when they walked in! And then next take is bad – but of course it’s bad, how could it be good?

‘I’m gonna spend loads of time with the actors on set’ is a phrase I’ve heard an awful lot. It never happens because you can’t spend loads of time with anyone when you have a hundred things to decide, fix, oil, shape, manoeuvre and get out of the location in twenty minutes. But you have to keep the actors warm and moist! Even the biggest Hollywood stars all turn to the same place when they hear ‘cut’ – the director. That’s the only place they can find out whether they did good or bad.

A director needs to establish their own brand of relationship with actors beforehand and keep that warm by talking to them, not necessarily even about the scene. If you are talking about the scene, talk to one actor at a time – this way, you don’t end up with the actor trying to prove to the others that they can do your direction and the relationship stays intimate. Most importantly, the actors aren’t supposed to know exactly what the others are going to do anyway.

So directing actors becomes not so much about using your imagination, but keeping the imagination of your actors alive. It’s the director’s responsibility to create a situation where the actors can offer their most interesting work.  This isn’t their ‘best’ work, because it’s not about being good or bad. It’s about being either engaging and arresting or just adding to the numbness that is available on and off the screen everywhere.


This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 132, Spring 2010


From the Archive: Breaking (Down) the Budget



Low-budget can mean anything from a few hundred grand to small change and some pocket-lint. But no matter the size of your lump sum, what’s the smartest way to spend your money in low-budget filmmaking? Conor McMahon talks to directors Brian O’Toole, Paul Ward, Eoin Macken and himself…  



Budgets are strange things. From the few films I’ve produced, I’ve always found them difficult and frustrating to put together. It’s impossible to tell how much most things will cost. How do you know how much footage will be shot or how much food will be eaten? And without accurate figures, how can you ever make a definite budget? I’ve also found it odd that on bigger films a budget is put together when they don’t even know exactly how it’s going to be shot, or how the director plans on staging certain things. But in the end, a budget is something you need to get things moving, to convince people it’s possible so you can secure finance.


The other thing about budgets is that a lot of people won’t talk about them. They don’t want people to know how much their film cost. And it’s understandable. If you’ve made a film for 100,000 and you say it cost 500,000, chances are you’ll probably be able to sell it for more on the market. It’s often only at the very lower end of the spectrum that people will proudly declare that their film cost a week’s wages, and use that as a selling point. The zombie film Colin that was shot earlier in the year and was apparently made for £40. Another example would be of course El mariachi, which used the fact that it only cost $7000 as a selling point.


In the age of digital filmmaking it’s easier than ever to pick up a camera and go out a shoot a film. But how much money do you need to do it? The answer is often whatever you have and whatever you can get.



– Dir: Brian O’Toole

– Overall Budget: €25,000

– Filmed on 16 mm


Budget Breakdown


For stock we used 25 x 400ft cans at €130 a pop – €3,250. We shot on an Arriflex SR3, so equipment and lights, including a 21-day rental of an underwater camera casing – €15,000. Processing and Telecine to Digibeta (both in Lisbon, at a very, very accommodating place called Tobis) – €2,200. The remainder went on travel expenses, food and some beers. No one got paid a dime.



Do you think having more money would have helped?


I’m not sure it would have made much difference to the actual film. But it would have been great to be able to pay people for their hard work. I’d have taken more time over more money, though.


Were there any advantages to having less money?


You have to think very creatively to shoot effectively on a low budget, especially on film.


What kind of favours did you pull to get the film made?


The cast and crew worked for free. Various bands played a fundraiser for us. We got money from parents and friends and the use of some cool locations through friends of the family.


Where should your money go in a low-budget films?


For me, it’s visuals. There’s no reason low-budget films have to look ugly. And quality gear is key. After that, quality food. It keeps people happy.



Did you write the idea for a low-budget? If so, what did you take into account when writing the script?


Yes, the whole project was geared towards the budget from the get-go.


Would you make another film at this level, or do you think it served as a training ground for something bigger?


I learned a hell of a lot. Of course I’d like to make something bigger, but I’d do it again. I just love making films.




Fur Coat and No Knickers

– Dir: Paul Ward

– Overall Budget: €22,000

– Shot on Z1


Budget Breakdown


Camera equipment for the 17-day shoot and pick-up days – €3,500. Sound equipment for the same length of time – €3,000. Lights rental for the same –  €2,800 We rented tracks for a few days of the shoot – €500.

Most of the locations were free but we paid for a few of the days – €500.

Costume and props for shoot – €1,400. Catering for the whole shoot and pick-up days – €3,000. Office and accountants – €2,000. Post-production, Digibeta, travel – €4,600.


What kind of favours did you pull to get the film made?


All the cast’s fees were deferred, and nearly all of the crew and most of the fees for the locations, editing and sound mixing were all deferred. The songs were a huge favour.


Where should your money go in a low-budget films?


Get a really good camera and DOP and as many lights as you can stretch your budget to. And also insurance as it makes everything so easy and it’s better to get the best.




The Disturbed

– Dir: Conor McMahon

– Overall Budget: €1,530

– Shot on Sony Z1



Budget Breakdown


Location for the 6-day shoot – €550. Camera for the 6-day shoot – €150. Travel – €50. Food – €230. Post Sound – €200. Mini DV Tapes – €60. Effects – €90. Digibeta Tapes – €200.


Was the film written for a no-budget?


On this film I used the old rule of no-budget film – take your actors to one location and chop them up. I actually just booked a house down the country a month in advance so it gave me a deadline to come up with a story and get everything organised.


Did you have much cast or crew to deal with?


We had three actors in total and three people on the crew, including myself, so there was very little expenses for food or transport.


Having made a film already for €100,000, what was the purpose of going back to make a film for €1,500?


The film started out as an experiment in improvisation on film. I wanted to just focus on something simple that would allow me work with actors. I wanted to get away from the rigidity that often comes with having a large crew. So I didn’t have any intention at the beginning of how long the film would be or how it would turn out. I also wasn’t under any pressure to deliver a particular kind of film or make something that would sell. And it was quite liberating to make a film in that frame of mind, because the focus was just on the scenes and making them work and also having fun. So having no budget can be a big plus.


I think you can spend a lot of time worrying about what will sell and if the film will look crap if it’s made for no money. But I don’t think you should be asking these kinds of questions. If it turns out crap, just don’t show it to anyone.


Do you need a lot of money for post-production?


Some people decide not to shoot their film because they hear about the costs for the deliverables that are required by sales agents and distributors. This can include legal documents, publicity material, copies of the finished product and additional copies for subtitling and dubbing. But the truth is, if your film is good, someone will foot that bill. So I wouldn’t worry about it when you’re doing your budget. Just focus on getting the film made, and if it works, someone will pick it up.





The Inside

– Dir: Eoin Macken

– Overall Budget €4,000

– Shot on Sony Z1


Budget Breakdown


The bulk of the money when on insurance, which was important considering the location we were shooting. The rest went on camera and lights, make-up effects, costume, and then food costs. But because the film was shot over only 5 days, we were able to keep the costs down.


Do you think having more money would have helped?


It would have in terms of allowing more time. When you’re making a film on a shoestring you can’t ask people to give up too much of their time if they are not been paid. More money also would have given us more time to experiment with lighting.


Were there any advantages to having less money?


There are, because you pull together people who believe in the idea of the project, the vision and they want to create something that they are proud of and can stand by instead of just working on a job.


What kind of favours did you pull to get the film made?


Most of the favours consisted of getting the location and cheaper equipment. Obviously crew and cast had to give their time. Making a film like this requires the coming together of many talented people. It won’t happen otherwise.


What do you think you should prioritise spending money on for low budget films?


The priority has to be the essentials. Getting the right camera and lighting and sound equipment is paramount. Without good sound and good compositions then what’s the point? You have to try and aspire to make the most of whatever you can afford or get your hands on but be smart about it. Food is a priority of course, you can’t expect people to work with you, no matter how much they are enjoying it both socially and creatively, if they’re not being kept warm, safe and well fed. Tea and biscuits will not suffice, it’s not fair to expect people to pay for their own food and petrol, or taxis, for example, if you’re shooting late or early.


Did you write the idea for a low budget? If so, what did you take into account when writing the script?


For The Inside, yes. I explained to Franco Noonan, my producer, that this was a film that could be done within a short time span, and with minimal cash. There is a looseness that comes with making a film this way that can really benefit it. Of course it can hinder the project but that’s why you should choose an idea or story that fits in with the resources that you have available. I find that this is a great spur because it forces you to create and think imaginatively, try different things and focuses your mind and energy on what you can do.


Would you make another film at this level, or do you think it served as a training ground for something bigger?


I see making films at this level as a training ground and useful platform to experiment with ideas. The Inside my fourth feature. The first, Christian Blake, was made for less than €8,000 over 18 months. (The budget went mainly on food!) It showed at the Galway Film Fleadh and then sold in the AFM and released across the US and Canada on DVD. The documentary The Fashion of Modelling was made for about €1,200 and was picked up for an hour slot by RTÉ 2 and the feature Dreaming For You was shot in New York for €700. That screened in Galway last year and is doing the festival circuit this year.


 This article first appeared in Film Ireland Magazine Issue 132 – Spring 2010