ANATOMY OF A
September 10th 2002.
For two and a half years, my main professional focus was on getting a
small scale feature film called JENNY'S GIFT into production. This is
the story of how it never happened.
While the Irish Film Board do not - as far as I know - have a clearly
stated decision making policy, I offer this tale of a dream unrealised
in the hope that it - accompanied by responses from the Board - will
offer some clues for others who seek to spend more of their
professional lives making work and less of it trying to meet the needs
of an inscrutable Irish Film Board.
The most important thing to say about my script JENNY'S GIFT is that it
comes from my heart. When I returned to Ireland in 1999, I declared the
ambition to make my stand here and persevere with making personal
projects. By late 1999, however, my inner life had unravelled as I
finally started dealing with the fact that I had been abused -
mentally, physically and sexually - when I was a boy. That therapy
carried on into 2000 and in April of that year it spilled over into my
imagination as certain story strands came together in my head.
I had long carried around the idea of a creative 'gift' being a
two-edged sword and the notion of a story of an old musician meeting a
young musician who, like him, hides a wound by getting lost in music.
From there came the simple start; a woman brings her young teenage
daughter to the attention of an elderly musician. He nourishes the
girl's musical gift and acknowledges that she, like he, is wounded. He
believes this is because of the death of the girl's father - but then
discovers that the girl is being abused. When he starts trying to help,
all the complications of the situation break loose - changing both
their lives profoundly. My aim was to write and make a feature
that dealt with the subject of child abuse in a way that was neither
didactic nor graphic. Above all, I wanted to tell a story that offered
help and hope to abused children.
I wrote the first draft of the script in a week - sleeping when I
couldn't stay awake, and grabbing whatever food was at hand rather than
cooking. At the end of the week I began to develop a skin condition
that lasted for more than six months; I became allergic to sunlight. It
was caused by being completely drained by the impact of the preceding
All this is by way of letting you know my connection and commitment to
the story. As I half-jokingly wrote to Rod Stoneman, "this time it's
Initially, I sent in two applications to the Film Board. One for
development funds, and one for production funds. Why? I had written
this in a simple and achievable way and I wanted to go quickly into
production on a very low budget - around 150,000 pounds.
The word came back, through Rod Stoneman, that the Board were
supportive but felt I needed to focus more on development. I was
frustrated by the decision at the time, but in retrospect it was wise.
I had received input from various friends in the business, as well as
from people working in the field of film education, and the script
needed more work.
Feedback at that stage could be summed up as the following points;
Samuel (the elderly musician) did not seem to be much of a hero; the
ending seemed too abrupt and Samuel's character (an elderly gay English
man) tended to have very stilted dialogue. I worked on incorporating
these points into a new draft. A friend in the film business in New
York, TC Rice, said the story lacked a third act. This was an
interesting thought and indeed I realised my first draft was stunted.
In early Autumn, I was receiving a flow of responses from the scripts I
had sent out. Perhaps foolishly, I had sent my first draft to a few
potential serious backers, and all had negative responses. Channel
Four's response was that they had already made a drama dealing with
child abuse (they were also, presumably, only ever going to make one
love story, one historical drama etc). Granada said they were already
committed to another Irish project.
Mary Callery, newly appointed in RTE's independent production
unit, had written saying RTE would no longer be getting involved
in feature film projects - only TV series. I wrote back pleading for
help and she kindly met me. She offered 'an enhanced presale' of 25,000
pounds - this of course being dependent on the film's being completed
and delivered. But it was a welcome start and the first tangible piece
of money brought to the project.
Through Marina Hughes, producer of my first film The Boy from Mercury,
I was introduced to Michael O'Sullivan of Anglo Irish Bank who said
that - as an act of support for the project - he would source Section
481 funds for an absolutely minimal fee. It was another welcome act of
faith, though again not money up front for production.
The project then entered a dark phase I see no point going into. I had
gone to an upcoming producer and not once but twice he told me he had
resubmitted the project to the Film Board for production funding, only
to come back to me some time after each deadline confessing he had not
submitted the project.
I continued work on the script. Stephen McKeon, composer for 'The Boy
from Mercury' and Bill Dowdall, principal flautist with the National
Symphony Orchestra and music teacher (and my first cousin) worked with
me developing the music elements of the story. Casting director Gillian
Reynolds did some preliminary research for me.
2001 had come and was in the process of going. I had written the fourth
substantive draft of the script, and through advice from friends I
approached Avril Ryan and Triona Campbell to produce JENNY'S GIFT. They
had produced Stephen Kane's THE CROOKED MILE and knew how to just get
in there and make a film. They were enthused by the project and they
set to work preparing a way forward.
Their determination matched mine and we set out with the approach that
'this is going to happen'. We aimed for shooting in February 2002, a
time when it would be possible to do deals for crews and
facilities. To that end, they joined in my march towards
production and we used the little development funding provided by the
Film Board to establish cast, crew and locations. 'If you build it they
will come'.... yeah, right.
We submitted an application to the Irish Film Board for what was to be
its last formal deadline. It was a time when structures within the
Board were changing. It was a time when changes happened - I now
realise - that were the undoing of my project.
Let me just explain a little about the application made to the Board. I
had storyboarded and shotlisted the film - to ensure our tight schedule
would work. Locations had been found. Deals had been struck with crew.
The script had been cast. UK Film Education, the schools section of the
Film Institute of Ireland, and an arts cinema network in Scotland had
all written saying they wanted to screen this film through their
distribution system. And let me be clear about this; no education
organisation in Ireland or the UK could find a feature drama dealing,
as my project did, with child abuse in a manner that was suitable for a
young audience. Plans for a website had been made, with a downloadable
companion piece for teachers and pupils. A video distributor here and
in the UK had expressed interest in the video rights. Sales agents had
expressed interest. The market was very clear; primarily for
educational screenings, but with a healthy possibility of television
sales. With my track record in film festivals around the world (my
films have won seventeen awards internationally) it was guaranteed at
least exposure if not sales through that outlet. All this, and a
request for a minimal amount of production funding to make the low
budget digital feature.
The Board said no.
We had a meeting with Brendan McCarthy and Rebecca O'Flanagan. The
outcome of the meeting - the decision of the Board - was that the
script needed more work. 20,000 pounds further development funding was
offered. The view was also expressed that the scale - the
extremely low budget - did not suit the story. My view is that I
had tailored the story from its inception to be low budget.
Some of the script comments really irked me, most notably 'whose story
is it?'. In my script, both Samuel and Jenny are changed by the story.
He is her mentor, but she is the catalyst for change in his life. The
view presented by the Board was that a screenplay could only have one
central character. This would explain the failure of such duos as Harry
and Sally, Butch and Sundance, Thelma and Louise, and of course what
hope for that straight-down-the-toilet clanger with seven cowboys
saving a town. Someone, somewhere had carved in stone a ruling that a
screenplay can only be centred on one person (as opposed to one
relationship or one aim or one subject) and never told me about it.
Pity the ill-informed writer.
In February I gathered the cast and workshopped the script. Alan Penn
in from England playing Samuel (a director turned actor and a highly
skilled flautist), the wonderful young Ruth Farrell, Charlotte Bradley,
Simon O'Gorman, the Turkish/German actress Ozay Fecht, Brian DeSalvo,
Philip Judge, Kate Perry, Noelle Brown, and Karl O'Neill.
At the end of the week we presented a rehearsed reading in the New
Theatre in Temple Bar. The audience consisted of Brendan and Rebecca
from the Board, experts from the field of abuse and counselling,
friends and trusted advisers from the film business, and about thirty
teenagers brought in through Alicia McGivern of the Film Institute of
Ireland. The reading, like the week, went great. Feedback was
fantastic. While, for instance, the Board had come back with concerns
about the appeal to a young audience of an elderly gay man, the
questionaires showed that the young audience wanted to know more about
the new gay relationship Samuel forms in the course of the story. We
submitted my rewrite based on all this work to the Board. I felt
confident we had gotten over this script obstacle.
Brendan and Rebecca called Avril and Triona (not me) to a meeting where
further problems with the script were listed.
Pause to imagine my reaction to that.
Okay. Now read on...
I finally set to work on the comments. By now I was starting to feel
beaten down. I had thought the Irish Film Board was there to support
Irish film makers. It seemed is was there to defeat passion.
Nevertheless, I worked on the script. Most particularly I brought in
more of Jenny's life as there was a feeling the story was told with too
much emphasis on Samuel (after all - who's story is it?). Further
advice was also sought on the subject of abuse. By the time Avril and
Triona resubmitted, they could supply; a marketing plan, letters from
the people who wanted this film for educational screenings, letters of
support from legal and social workers in the field of abuse, and the
continued tentative interest of other backers such as a company in
Berlin and the Northern Ireland Film Commission. For JENNY'S GIFT to
happen though, the Irish Film Board had to step up to bat first with
their vote of confidence.
Two months later we were called to a meeting with Brendan and Rebecca.
We expected to finally hear a decision for going forward. We were
instead told that they had read the script and each still had their
reservations but we could go ahead and resubmit for production funding.
Which is what we thought we had done two months earlier, actually.
So resubmit we did. And a letter informing us of the Board's rejection
of the submission - and an offer to meet - came back in early August.
I write this as I sit in my flat in Berlin. I now live between here and
Ireland. I have embarked on various writing projects - there's a
market for my writing and script editing skills in Germany, Iceland,
and the USA. I also must try to get my finances in some kind of
order; I earned 10,000 Euros from my two and a half years of work for
JENNY'S GIFT (I of course did other work also or I'd be living in a
cardboard box by now) and it's time for me to be sensible and solvent.
But I'd love to know what the currency of decision making is in the
Irish Film Board. Do they have a checklist? If so I'd like to see it. A
score card? Then I'd like to know how my project scored.
Strong script? Check.
Strong cast? Check.
Budget and schedule? Check.
Experienced director/producer? Check.
Market plan? Check.
Other funding? Check.
Would someone please let me know what the agenda is?
Does the Board have a policy on family films or educational films?
What exactly are the Irish Film Board's criteria for its selection
What precisely does it see as its role in the development of
Irish film making and Irish film makers?
Am I wrong in thinking it exists for Irish film makers - and not the
other way around?
In the tug-of-war between commercial and artistic considerations, what
research does the Board do to back up its decisions on the commercial
or artistic value of a script?
Does the Board support work that can prove its own merit but is
not to the Board's own editorial liking?
If the Board has subjective editorial control on the films made in
Ireland, then what assurances are there for Irish film makers that its
personal taste does not remain the controlling voice of film output for
longer than a reasonable term?