Martin Duffy,
New York,
March 14th 1998.

Christmas of 1996 was a bad time for me. I'd come back from a fruitless business trip to Los Angeles only to see THE BOY FROM MERCURY drop dead at the Irish box office. I ignored a message from film journalist Paul Power, and didn't contact him for several weeks. He had met Jim Powers, head of development at the New York film company The Shooting Gallery, who had seen my film at the Hamptons Film Festival.
When I contacted Jim, he said he had liked my film and wanted to send me a script for which they were seeking a director. So began the process that led me to sitting here in my Manhattan studio apartment writing this on the morning after the wrap party of my second feature, THE BUMBLEBEE FLIES ANYWAY. The film stars Elijah Wood, Jeaneane Garofalo, Joe Perrino, Rachael Leigh Cook and Roger Rees. I would describe the story as a teenage 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'. It's based on a novel by young peoples' novelist Robert Cormier and was developed by Steven Haft (producer of such films as 'Dead Poets Society', 'Emma', and Robin Williams' upcoming 'Jacob the Liar'). The original script was written by Jennifer Sarja though I worked over an eight month period on rewrites.
I first came to New York for the project in May of 1997, having read the script and novel and responded with a twenty page breakdown of how I would rework the script and approach directing the film. I met with Jim Powers, Steven Haft, and Shooting Gallery co-founder Bob Gosse. I sat with them in a Manhattan hotel to pitch for the job, and the day after my return to Dublin they phoned to say they wanted me to direct. There followed months of delays, and a further trip in September, before I finally moved here in November to settle in and start the process of getting the film onto the screen.  
Being something of a control freak, I arrived with the the film story-doodled (my term for my pathetic matchstick drawings), shot-listed and scheduled. I need to make a film in my head before I can start talking to other people about what I want. The budget was about two million dollars but my ambitions would test the limits of possibility.
One of the oddest aspects for me was that I was the new kid on the block in every aspect of the film. I had tried and failed to get some of my Irish cohorts on the film (people like Seamus Deasy and Tom Conroy) so I had to start from scratch. The assigned Line Producer was Jonathan Starch who aside from being brilliant at his job has become a trusted friend. From November we began in a room at the Shooting Gallery offices with Jonathan, myself, and locations manager/scout Jason Conti. Shortly after my arrival I went to Los Angeles for a few days of auditions and to meet Elijah. Fortunately, he and I got along really well from the start (we met for lunch and wound up chatting for five hours) and there was the added bonus that Elijah, having recently made the TV film "Oliver Twist' in Dublin, was a major fan of Ireland and all things Irish.
Official preproduction began in mid December by which time I had assembled all the key crew. Steve Kasmierski was the cinematographer and over several weekends we had met to work through my storydoodles. On THE BOY FROM MERCURY Seamus Deasy had allowed me, in my fear and insecurity, to present the storyboards and have them virtually copied shot for shot. By the time I sat down with Steve I felt I had sufficient confidence to put the plans to him and then discuss other ways of approaching the task. I found the process very enjoyable and we spent many hours visualising the the film and devising a new shot list. While for most department heads I met several people before making a choice, Jeff Lazar was the first and only AD I met. I took to him straight off and felt we were so in tune about the work ethic and on-set atmosphere I aspire to that I chose him there and then. For me, the most difficult task was to find an editor. With fifteen years experience as an editor I know enough about the job to want a strong editor who will bring his or her own vision to the material. My choice is Suzanne Pillsbury who has edited many feature films and who had coincidentally worked in the past with John Victor Smith the veteran editor who cut MERCURY.

The story is set in a medical research facility where the central character, who has no memory, becomes involved in the lives of a group of young terminally-ill patients. Extensive scouting led us to choose a building in a vast complex called Creedmore Psychiatric Institution in Queens. Since the early eighties there has been a Thatcher-style policy of releasing psychiatric patients 'back into the community' (meaning of course to live in cardboard boxes on the sidewalk) and Creedmore had two vast buildings that sat unoccupied. When we first visited good old Building 74 it was dank and filthy, littered with dead birds and weird artifacts from its life as an institution. Production Designer Susan Block had the unenviable task of gathering her crew (and hiring in a team of industrial cleaners) to turn the place into our own world with the space to organise all we needed for sets, department rooms, artistes' rooms, canteen and so on. The final sequence of the film is set in an attic and one of the buildings four eighty-foot long attics was selected as our 'hero' attic. A plug was built fifty feet down the attic so that we could build a fake exterior on the other side which would then match the sweep of the roof we built as a huge set on stage. The exterior world of Creedmore is bleak to say the least, so we found other places where people could walk and talk on what were supposed to be the grounds of the research facility. It meant that the six week shoot, starting at the beginning of February, took us from the grounds of a college on the Hudson River called Mount Saint Vincent to such lavish locations as a pizza joint in City Island, the operating room of a hospital on Roosevelt Island, and a junkyard in Brooklyn.
My area of least experience is working with actors, and this film requires some very heavy performances. I was blessed to be working with Elijah because he has the ability to deliver all one could want and more without having to agonise over the work. Joe Perrino (one of the young cast of 'Sleepers') had the heaviest drama to carry and did so with astonishing power. Jeaneane, who normally works as a comic actor, brought much needed lightness and humanity to a role originally written a bit on the dour side.
My favourite part of the otherwise terrifying task of directing is the camaraderie on set and it was a happy shoot. I also got to play with a whole new set of toys; steadicam, crane, special effects, and a car crash stunt. My favourite moment of the film was hanging out of the passenger side of a red convertible (to stay out of shot) as Elijah sped down a hill with the cameraman in the back seat. The most bizarre thing for me about the shoot is that I wasn't allowed to talk to extras, only the first assistant director can do that; if a director says anything other than 'hello' to an extra they can say they received special direction and get paid a higher rate.
I had all kinds of fears and stresses as the shoot approached. One in particular was the schizophrenic situation I found myself in with regard to how my role was perceived. The Shooting Gallery have a policy of supporting the vision of their film makers while Steven Haft is of the Hollywood school of thought whereby the director's task is to make the film the producer wants. If nothing else, it has taught me that I never want to direct a Hollywood studio film - where directors are apparently assailed on a daily basis by instructions from studio executives. I'll probably try to stick with developing my own projects and forego any vague hope of fame and fortune. One absolute truth, however, is that I've learned a huge amount from Steven and I know I've done a better job with his involvement than I would have done without it.
The entire task has been a huge learning experience for me and a great boost to my confidence; though I still get a queasy sensation in my gut when I think of the days and their challenges. At the end of the first day's shoot, I commented that it felt like I'd just spent twelve hours in a dentist chair.
I'll be in New York until at least August when post production is complete. I've been too busy (for over two months I've been working six days a week, usually fourteen hours a day) to enjoy being here but I aim to change that now. The weather has been freakishly warm through winter and the fear is that summer will be a killer, but I live near Central Park and I'll be safely tucked away in the editing room during the extremes of the day.
The intention or expectation is that the film will be released here early next year. It has already been presold to several world territories. Hopefully the end product will do justice to the vast human effort that went into its making. And hopefully I'll be allowed to play ship's captain on another film voyage in the not too distant future.