Martin Duffy Interview
2nd March 2005
MD: I appreciate the interest; it is the interest in the film that keeps the film alive too. A young woman friend of mine in Germany has done some research into young people’s films in Ireland and the UK, a bit of a broader thing. It is that kind of interest. Somehow the film has continued to attract this kind of interest and that’s what keeps things alive. If a film doesn’t resonate over a period of years, then that’s it, it’s gone basically. So this keeps it alive. Her name is Jule Diener. She did this thing as a German thesis but she had done some work in Ireland before and she was looking at or comparing a whole set of films from Ireland and the UK and was seeing if there was template of an absent father, a theme in both UK and Irish film. So, it turned out that with The Boy From Mercury, you could tick all the boxes, in terms of this father thing.
PW: Yeah, certainly in most Irish films in the 1990s you have that absent father thing which academics have great fun with, because it is a lack of leadership, or moving on from de Valera and all that.
MD: First of all I have to say that part and parcel of the creative process or whatever is that you don’t particularly know. There are lots of those things that I would not have been in the slightest bit aware of, but might have seen them in retrospect, because you are purely part of it yourself. You are a product of it as opposed to being someone who can say well I set out to do this. You are inside the box, you are not able to stand outside of it and look at it. I’d also have to say that from my point of view, my father was alive when I was eight, but my difficulties with my father were so great that when I wanted to write a film about my childhood, which is largely what that is, I didn’t know how to put him in the film, frankly. A brother of mine died when I was eleven and that had a very profound effect on my family. My father died when I was twenty but really from the death of my brother on, I had very little connection with my father. I was the youngest by far and he was beaten, it was kind of the last straw for my father. And I just didn’t know how to incorporate that into any kind of look at my childhood. Speaking of it in personal terms, my mother was hugely supportive of me and my creativity, I was a real mother’s boy. I mean, stuff that isn’t in the film for instance and it’s a true story. I am the youngest of thirteen so it was a really, really packed kitchen. Now, I had an imaginary friend and my mother used to leave a place for my imaginary friend at the table. That’s a huge indulgence in a house that small. For instance in the film, the boy sitting on the railings and talking to the sky, I used to do that. And my mother was very supportive about that and when my brothers and sisters would complain about it she would say ‘no he’s ok, leave him alone’. Whereas by contrast, something that any psychiatrist would have great fun with and which I did once tell, because I have been in and out of therapy a couple of times and once told a psychoanalyst who obviously had a field day with it. There used to be a TV series called Bat Masterson. Which was this elegant cowboy, played by Gene somebody, and the thing about this guy wasn’t that he was this rough cowboy but he was a gentleman’s cowboy with a gentleman’s suit and everything. But he had a cane and sometimes uses the cane as part of how he defends himself. I once got a piece of broken chair and painted it black and made the silver thing on top so that I had a cane. This is at the age of eight or nine. I remember once with this thing walking proudly down the street to meet my dad on his way, because there was a time when he would always be coming back from the pub. But there was a particular time he’d be back by, you know. I remember walking down the street to meet him and when he saw it he was furious with me for having this thing and said it made me look completely stupid and to get rid of it and everything. I remember going home and in the back garden breaking it in two and sticking it in the bin. So I mean, for me in the film, and now I’m just ranting to you, but for me in the film I wanted to write about my childhood, but the fond memories were about my mother, and the narrative turns in it that role was served, if you like, by my father. If he had been in the story in reality then really it would have been a story about a mother and father who saw a kid in two different ways. A mother saying ‘let him be what he is’ and a father saying ‘why doesn’t he act properly and hang out more with kids’. I got away from that in the storytelling and went instead for this kid who is in search for, I dunno, I couldn’t really belong here, I must belong somewhere else and a need to belong, a kid having a need to belong.
PW: There is very much that idea of an outsider in it. You have said that before in your Road to Mercury as well. You felt like an outsider as a kid as well, and latching onto that sort of identity. One of the things that I wanted to ask you was the Saturday morning cinemas as a child. Was this something regular that happened...?
MD: Yeah Completely. I have to say, and this is being very pedantic about it, I’m not sure if it was Saturday morning or Saturday afternoon. Somewhere in the back of my memory I have to say it was afternoon. I think in the UK it was in the morning. But that was a weekly thing, completely and absolutely. I was just about at the tail end of when you could go with your jam jars and your milk bottle tops and stuff for your entry into the cinema. That you even didn’t have to be there with your couple of pennies but that you could get in with that. And the huge queues outside and people pouring in and doing stuff like when the film was on you’d have a bunch of pals waiting outside and you’d go and you’d open one of the emergency exits and they’d rush in the dark before the ushers could stop them and things like that. Seeing Flash Gordon, seeing The Phantom, which is the one I particularly remember, seeing the Batman series. These were kind of strange leftovers because this was very early Sixties but what we were seeing were series from the Forties. But then there was kind of a programme where you would get like the Three Stooges, one or two ‘folly ‘n’uppers’ as we called them. A few cartoons and a film, or maybe two films. I saw Thirteen Ghosts or something it was called, Dr Sardonicus, Hammer horror film that frightened the living daylights out of me. You’d see the westerns of course and all that sort of stuff. So there was already a staple diet every week. And always, as in The Boy From Mercury, the cinema was the Sundrive Cinema, next to Sundrive Park and so you’d go into the cinema and then into the park to play out the film. You’d go and play Cowboys and Indians and whatever else. It was a complete ritual.
PW: What were the films that stuck out? Flash Gordon?
MD: When you ask me that question, the very first film that comes into my head is The Incredible Shrinking Man. I could probably list you half a dozen films that I remember seeing from then. But that film really, really got me. Actually, I have seen it a few times since and I actually think it is a very deep film, particularly as it gets toward the end. Eventually he is being reduced and reduced until he is microscopic, a tiny, tiny entity. And even as we would say now in Quantum Physics, he becomes the whole universe. It is incredibly intelligent for what it is. That had a huge affect on me. That and the fear that I got from Dr Sodonicus. They’re the two that right now, very, very strongly, stand out in my mind. There were a couple of ghost stories that would stand out in my mind. And I think maybe The Haunting. I would have to check whether I remember that from then or maybe from later. Because I was an apprentice projectionist when I was fifteen. Maybe it is not then. That is always a slight blur for me. But there was definitely this kind of Thirteen Ghosts because we got those 3D glasses for watching ghosts in 3D. It was a real sort of communal event, just hundreds of kids sitting down watching these films.
PW: When would you have stopped going?
MD: With me, it would have happened when I was thirteen. Because when I was thirteen, I went to college to become a priest. I was in a seminary for a couple of years. So that would have broken it for me. I was in the college for two years and when I came out I started working at fifteen. So my memory is that it would have lasted up until that time, up until twelve or so.
PW: It was still very much a social event; was it the entire neighbourhood?
MD: Yes, completely so. I remember, just towards the end of it, trying to go with a girl, which would have been a whole other experience. Even though it was still the milling crowds.... It must have been just as puberty was kicking in that I moved to the college. At that stage, 1964, this is extremely early days for television, very limited television. I think it is kind of a shame now, there is too much home entertainment. Then there was this focal point that all the kids would flock to, as with Sunday nights. Local cinemas would be packed then too. So, television was the death of all that.
PW: The TV in The Boy From Mercury kind of features a little bit....
MD: ... But in a very unentertaining way. He doesn’t see anything interesting on the TV. It is always boring programmes. He gets to see excitement in the cinema and then he is watching some old television play or interview or What’s my Line or something. They’re the only things he sees on television.
PW: That’s interesting because I was going to ask you about that, what sort of motivates you to choose these particular programmes to put into the film?
MD: Well, with the interview, I couldn’t believe my luck. It was the most boring thing you could imagine. It was the guy talking about his function as a European Ombudsman. It was like you could feel the ash settling. What’s My Line just seemed funny, because I remember it as a kid and I remember it was one that everybody watched. The other one turned out completely by coincidence. I was looking for something that might be on TV on a Sunday night and I discovered a play that was written by an old mentor of mine, Michael Voysey. He had been the script editor in RTE when I sold my first two TV plays there. So when I was looking through the library of plays I saw his name. Tuppence in the Gods was its name. But just the fact that it was Michael, it was an opportunity to bring something of my own into it. That’s how the choice happened.
PW: With the Flash Gordon films, was it a similar thing, or why did you choose them?
MD: That’s a very interesting question because, first of all, when I wrote the script, I wrote a false set of things.... created this character Chuck Solar, who then at the end goes to Mercury and the Mercurians are all these weird creatures. That was originally what I had in the script. Then it was Rod Stoneman who said ‘why go pastiche when you can find the real thing?’ Then I went hunting through tapes. And what I found with Flash Gordon, it was perfect with The Boy From Mercury because it was about his father, he does something on behalf of his father. Unfortunately I fear that it gets lost in the mix. I mean at the time, the mix in the body, I’m not complaining about the mix of The Boy From Mercury, I’m talking about the mix in the body of Flash Gordon. The guy says to Flash Gordon, I will radio your father, Flash Gordon has saved the Universe. So this theme of the father from the beginning. I think the first line that you hear from Flash Gordon is the father talking and Flash saying ‘no Dad, I’m not coming home, I have to go and follow Zarkov’ or whatever it is. He is doing something for his father.
PW: You also have Frank Shannon, who played Zarkov, he’s actually an Irish actor. He was born in Ireland and emigrated to the States, so you pay homage.
MD: Oh, I didn’t know (laughs), well of course I knew all of that!
PW: That’s interesting because I was trying to figure out exactly why Flash was chosen, and the music as well. You use different songs from different EMI records. I presume it was difficult to get the rights for that.
MD: It was. I would have liked to have used more, but they were really charging a lot of money. So the Shadows one at the start, and what is the other one at the end? It’s ok if you have forgotten as well, it is ok.
There are two songs and we tried to get a third one as well called Starry Eyed by Tommy Steele, around the end credits, but we just couldn’t afford it. Shakin All Over, that was it, and Apache. I would happily have had more music but it was budget limitations.
PW: Did those songs have any particular resonance or significance?
MD: No. The thing of playing guitar with the sweeping brush, I saw one of my brothers doing that, he used to do it regularly. I play guitar, but he never learned. I remember seeing him in the kitchen, doing this and listening to the Shadows....
PW: When you are talking about it being semi-autobiographical, what were the main features that you would see as literally jumping out of your childhood onto the screen?
MD: The sense of being an outsider. I now live in Berlin. My wife sometimes says to me that I look like I just fell from another planet. Sometimes I walk around disorientated. Now, when I am here in Dublin, I am actually not being fully familiar with where I am. I don’t know if that is because I have just grown accustomed to it over the years, or whatever. In my own biographical terms, I really wasn’t supposed to happen. My mother was forty six, my Dad was fifty. We reckon I was something like her twentieth pregnancy. She had diabetes and was overweight. The famous family story is that my mother went to the hospital and said ‘I am pregnant ‘and the doctor said ‘no it is the menopause’, or the change of life as it was called then. My mam went away and then went back a few months later and famously went to the same doctor and said ‘the change of life is kicking’. And they were very, very alarmed and they said that the likelihood of me being Downs Syndrome was extremely high because I was on the top of the list for everything: late pregnancy, diabetes, over-weight mother, high number of pregnancies, so I was right up there, 80% or something. And that is why I am called Martin, because my father’s favourite saint was Blessed Martin de Porres and they were all saying Novena’s to Blessed Martin that it would all turn out okay. There was always a debate in the family whether I did turn out okay. So it was this complete unlikely event, I was born at fourteen pounds, a huge baby. My mother had a nervous breakdown more or less immediately after I was born. I think I must have had a sense of the unlikelihood of the whole thing, it was there with me all the time. It is basically true. I did believe.... I used to look out at the sky and think ‘when is the spaceship coming’. Genuinely. And I remember talking to other kids, when I was seven, eight or nine, saying I had special powers and believing that I couldn’t possibly belong to this world.
When I was born, my eldest sister was already married with three kids. My mam used to be pushing me along in the pram and my nieces and nephews would be walking along beside me. The whole thing was sort of so unlikely that I think my sort of way out was through fantasy. I used to talk to myself a lot as a kid, an awful lot. This whole imaginary friend thing. Really, it was kind of like a disconnection. That is kind of what I wanted to write about. The fact that my mother allowed it. It could have gone either way. If my brothers and sisters were pissed off with my behaviour and my father didn’t like my behaviour and mother said ‘what is wrong with this kid’; I mean it could have gone the other way. It could have wound up that I would have gone to therapy or be in a home. It is possible that you are just that bit too odd. I was redeemed, I know, by the fact that I was funny. I know that I was a funny kid I have been told that a lot. I had a good sense of humour as a kid. Speaking honestly and openly, when my brother died I think it was the end point of that. But I remember when I was kid of seven or eight in school, putting on shows for the nuns and the other kids. I have a distinct recollection of a nun and she was holding out her frock thing and I was pretending to be a bull and she was pretending to be a bullfighter, and this in front of all the other kids in the canteen at lunchtime. So, that was my redemption, that I was also funny. I remember at home putting on funny acts for the family and all that. I remember doing impersonations of Jerry Lewis and Red Skeleton at home at parties.
PW: Do you still do that?
MD: (Laughs) No, unfortunately not. I started writing the story just a couple of years after my mother had died. She died in 1990 and I started writing in 91. It was really kind of for her that I was writing it. It was a celebration of that. The other elements come in in terms of storytelling. It wasn’t so much that I was trying to join the body of work of absent fathers, it would have just loaded the story completely differently if I tried to actually address what that was going to be.
PW: Why Mercury?
MD: I have no idea, and yet that’s all it ever was. Mercury of course is the Messenger god. And Mercury is the planet in the sign of Virgo, I’m a Virgo. But I didn’t know any of these things. When I was a kid I just knew it was Mercury, no idea why. It was never any other planet.
PW: That idea of being an outsider, what happens when you come back to Ireland now. What do you think of contemporary Irish culture? You have that outsider’s perspective, you are distanced from it to a degree. Do you see any major changes?
MD: I see huge changes. But I lived outside of Ireland for a few years, between America and the UK when I was making these two films. That was a gap of three years. Even then when I came back, it felt very different. I found a real difficulty reconnecting with a lot of friends. There was a gap that I had occupied in friendships and the gap had become filled with other people. I found as I was moving over to Berlin, that there were a lot of people my age in Berlin because of the nature of its culture. It is not German as such, it is Berlin. A lot of people were very actively involved in friendships, I love friendships. In Berlin I have gathered a great number of friends and I love it. It is a culture that is about getting older. That’s what I love about Berlin as well. Whereas here, it has suddenly become a culture about money. It is funny that you should ask me that question now because in the past - since I only got here yesterday evening – Waiting on the plane with a couple of Irish people at Schonefeld, two women behind me in the queue waiting for a taxi, a couple of guys when I was waiting for a DART earlier on, and a guy on a mobile phone, four conversations that I overheard and they all had to do with money. They all had to do with some type of business transaction. These two guys at the DART station were wondering whether or not one had put in £280,000 stg into a deal to buy a two and a half million euro house. The others were talking about what account they were going to use to draw down this and ... I was just hearing about money. As far as I am concerned, it has become a very acquisitive culture. When I was here, you could sit in a pub and amuse yourself with stories and not have very great expectations. I am sure it is good to have expectations but it changes the culture, it changes the way you think about it. Maybe why I relate to Berlin so well is that its post-empire culture, its post-everything culture. Germany had its nose wiped of all the shit of everything that empire is all about and they were reduced to rubble, and now struggle to deal with the fact they are this lame, limping giant that is nothing compared to what it was. The headlines yesterday evening were that 5.2 million are unemployed, that’s the highest figure since the thirties, since the rise of the Nazis. I am not advertising as such but it makes the people more introverted in a way that they turn in to what is going on inside themselves and look to other people as to what is going on inside themselves. At the moment it seems to me as if it is kind of like some form of spending spree or acquisition thing here.
PW: One of the things about the film in relation to that is, is there a sense of loss for 1960s Ireland in the film? In the Road to Mercury you talked a little bit about the nostalgia market when you are trying to pitch a film to the producers. Do you see The Boy From Mercury as a nostalgic film? Is it a loss in terms of, is there something in Irish culture that had been lost?
MD: First of all, it is about whether you are in or out of the box. All of it evolved out of this wish to celebrate that particular bit of my childhood and I would have to say that particular bond with my mother. That was the real motive. It had to be that time. The Boy From Mercury did not exist in the now. Some people were saying don’t tell another story in the past, tell it in the present, but you couldn’t have that innocence now. My wife’s son is eight. He has so much information, science education programmes, all the adventure programmes. He is surrounded by everything. He actually has far less room for imagination than I had. All this imagination is in terms of - so much is given to him. Whereas with us we had loads of room for filling in the gaps. The gaps get smaller and smaller. I say that now, ten years after having made the film. I can see how now kids might look at that film and be awe-struck at how innocent he could be or how simplistic those times could be, or how simple life could be. The one thing that I know, I also have an eight year old daughter, Ellen, who obviously has English whereas Noam only has German. But for them, still the nightmare sequence for all its simplicity still scares them. So, nightmares still exist, that fear in your bed at night, that doesn’t go away. All these other things around having scope for imagination have been hijacked and taken over. All the blanks have been filled in. With my wife's son I see him having very little time for just his own free-floating thinking. I used to day-dream and I don’t know how much time there is now for daydreaming for kids. Someone should set up a separate course for day-dreaming for kids. What do you do, you lie back on the floor and look at a ceiling that has been painted the colour of clouds and blue sky and you just lie there for an hour. (Laughs). That has sort of gone.
PW: Do you think, looking back on the film now, that it achieved that idea you had of representing the bond between you and your mother, celebrating that idea? Do you think that it worked well with Rita and James in terms of establishing that sort of a bond?
MD: I hope that I didn’t overplay it. The extent of what happens in the film is that one of his last sentences is ‘Goodnight mother’ as opposed to ‘Earth mother’ and that is as far as it goes. I didn’t push it to an extreme. I am happy I didn’t. It has always been a regret of mine that when the film was played in the cinemas, I had actually made a mistake. I had put in what I had thought was a very modest line to uncle Tony, about the telephone operator saying ‘don’t let him touch anything until he gives you a ring’. And then a beat after that you cut to Harry with his ‘Goodnight mother’. But I have seen that in cinemas and people are still laughing at that line. I never thought it was that funny, but people are laughing at that and the Goodnight mother is gone. That would be on my list as one of the things I screwed up on.
PW: In terms of the Irish culture aspect and representing the past, the treatment of Harry and his guilt complex which comes from the Catholic Church and the iconography that is used, do you want to talk about the angle taken on Catholicism in education in the film.
MD: Guilt and control is all in that era. I can’t say what it is like now as I am completely disengaged from it. Yes, I was completely driven by guilt and would have had a very keen sense of guilt and I think that was very much part of the process. Powerlessness and guilt would be the two things that I would associate with anything to do with the Catholic Church. They made you feel that you had no power, that they had all the power. They could make you feel guilty for whatever. It is true. I actually did write a note once to a kid in school and signing myself as Mercury Man. He was picking on some friend of mine. It was found by a Christian Brother who went one by one around the room ‘who wrote this note’ and you had to swear. And I lied (laughs). That part actually happened.
PW: That’s a great sequence, and the moving statues... From the article that you read I was trying to interpret that in relation to some of Margo Harkins stuff in Hush-a-bye-baby.
MD: Which of course I cut.
PW: Did that have any influence on the moving statue stuff in the film?
MD: Honestly, it was more the irreverence than anything else. It wasn’t particularly the phenomenon, it was the irreverence, the making a joke, looking at a crucifix that looks back. When we were doing the nightmare scene, it was somebody from the art department’s idea to put flashing lights in the Scared Heart. Pure irreverence.
PW: In that scene in the school, there is the use of the Padraic Colum poem. Does that have a particular resonance from your childhood too?
MD: It is the only poem that I do remember by heart. I did remember it by heart. It was drummed into us. I don’t know why this particular Brother drummed it into us, but he drummed it into us successfully. I won’t even try now, but I probably could recite a good chunk of it. Certainly at that time, it was my number one choice because... part of it stuck in my head because he used to make us act it out.... It was a performance as well. As an adult I taught myself the ‘Jabberwocky’. Those are the two poems that I could recite. I also used the exteriors of the school that I had gone to. The interiors are from somewhere else, the exteriors are from the Christian Brother’s school that I went to.
PW: Is it still a school?
MD: It is still a school, but now it kind of functions as a community school. Christian Brothers are still there. Two of them.
PW: They didn’t have any objections to the use of it in the film?
MD: No. They were there really more in a background administrative role. It is all lay teachers and everything.
PW: On one of the points you made earlier about kids coming to see the film and how they might view it. What sort of audience did you have in mind when you were making it or pitching it? Was it a child audience or an adult audience?
MD: There is a huge ongoing debate in the business about this. Always at the top is the term ‘the family film’. In other words an adult would go with a kid. I haven’t seen The Incredibles but it is a film that kids can see at one level and adults can see at another level. An adult would see it as something about the past and remembering their own childhood, and a child would see it as a more visceral thing about this kid and what this kid is doing. I used to have a catch phrase for it, which to be honest I have tried to apply as a catchphrase to two other things that I have written, but it hasn’t be used yet: it is a film for anyone who has ever been a child. So there is no defining line. With my own daughter or my wife’s son we would often go to films and the best films are the ones that have one level for the adult and one for the child audience. I believe that it fits into that and I know from experience that kids do experience it in a very strong way. They can be moved by it and scared by it and fascinated by it.
PW: It is interesting from reading the Road to Mercury, the problems with finding producers and companies that will promote it and will get on board because it is a family film. The idea of ‘family film’ seems to go down much better in the US than in Europe, I think. It is something that you talk about in relation to pitching it as The Snapper meets My Life as a Dog. Did you really believe in that?
MD: (Laughs) By the same token there is a ghost story script of mine that is written that is going to happen later in the year, called Little Boy Priest. I told you that I went to a seminary when I was thirteen. Well this is a ghost story set in the seminary, about a thirteen year old boy who goes to the seminary and starts to see the ghost of another boy. It turns out that he is kind of like a secret thing that has been suppressed within this seminary and the boy gets in more and more danger as he starts to get drawn more and more into what this ghost is trying to get him to do. When I talked about that I thought, this is the dark side of The Boy From Mercury. This is no kid’s film, this is a film that kids wouldn’t be allowed to see. So, you still end up using catchphrases.
PW: Some of the reviews that I have read often compare it to Cinema Paradiso and My Life as a Dog and I was just wondering if there was any influence from those films.
MD: I would have seen both films, but I would have thought if anything it is the shared experience of creative people in the early stages of their lives when they are beginning to find themselves. Trying to figure out where they fit in. And that is really the theme. I would have thought there would have been plenty of creative people – where they feel that sense of separation and what to identify it with. .... There is a book called Solitude by Anthony Storr who has written a lot about the makings of creative people. He says it is almost a template for creative people. One of the ingredients is the loss of a parent in the early stages of life. This kind of withdrawal where you retreat into some other area of life as a response and that is where these things come from. I think that would apply to me and a lot of creative people. They tend to have this thing, something has been disrupted in the first few years of their lives. I have always suspected and I would be interested to talk more to my brothers and sisters about it, particularly my sisters would be more open about it. For me, it would have been my mam. In some way I would have been affected by what happened to my mam after I was born. She became agoraphobic and wouldn’t leave the house for a year and a half. My sisters told me that when she was starting to get better she would sit on the bus with a pair of rosary beads. And apparently I used to do the same thing as a little kid. Maybe that was part of her. Then when she saw this ongoing colourful behaviour, well she just let it play itself out.
PW: What would you see as some of your major filmic influences then? Films that may have had an affect on your career.
MD: I cry very easily at films, for example In America. I had to see that on video because in the cinema I would be a wreck because I know it is about the loss of a child, I couldn’t handle that. So for me in general terms, emotions in the story are really important to me, to have an emotional truth. Any good filmmaker, I wouldn’t know where to start. For instance, It’s a Wonderful Life is still a film that I cry watching. I am a bit of a softy really. Anything that in story terms touches on fathers or children or things that are unresolved or need forgiveness. These stories always deeply affect me. I was a wreck when I saw The Fisher King. It hit me unaware that this guy was trying to help the other guy to heal. For me it is more about the themes than – it is more about content than it is about form... That’s a very broad and wishy-washy answer but I can’t think of anything that would – you know, Billy Wilder is a fantastic filmmaker, and lists of other people. It is more just the heart.
PW: You talk a little bit about that in the Road to Mercury as well. In terms of getting an emotional impact in The Boy from Mercury and the difference between American film and European films and the use of music and sound to evoke certain emotions. So are you steering toward an American format in that sense?
MD: I don’t think it is necessarily pushing toward an American format. I said right from square one that this has to have a really big music score, this can’t be small because for him this is huge. So it has to be like big orchestra. From that point of view you might consider that was an American influence. But to go back to what you were saying earlier on, I wouldn’t have thought a great deal about it consciously, but when he says ‘Goodnight mother’ she doesn’t get down on her knees and start embracing him... I wouldn’t have done that and that would have been milking it the way the American’s do, which I saw relatively recently in a film and it lost out on my tears. I was getting into it and they started getting into this thing of everybody being thrown in there. The whole thing of the suspension of disbelief. Maybe there is a way in which Americans – it is like Bart Simpson when he is in the cinema with Lisa and they are watching a horror scene and she closes her eyes and says ‘tell me when it is over’ and he says ‘its over’ and she opens her eyes and it is still on. He says you got to desensitise yourself to the violence. So I think if it is pushed too far you are desensitised to the emotions.
PW: One of the other things I wanted to ask you was why Walkinstown? Why was it chosen?
MD: Well, it was the place out in the country. I had a best friend named Sean who was out in Walkinstown and Walkinstown was the country for us. When I would get on my bike you were still sort of in the suburbs even though Crumlin was still – basically you were living in the country – but when you got to Walkinstown that was the countryside. Where this guy lived, his house was amongst the last houses and then there was fields and so on. People of that generation would get that....
PW: In your later work after The Boy From Mercury, you can see some sort of childhood threads going through as well, such as The Testimony of Taliesen Jones. What was that like to work on? Did that help you reshape some of the stuff you had done in The Boy from Mercury?
MD: One followed the other because of The Boy From Mercury. Boy From Mercury started picking up prizes all over the place then I got offered to do this film in America The Bumblebee Flies Anyway. Basically people could see that I could get really good performances out of young people. So, that is a cast of young teenagers. I was jut finishing that when I got Taliesen, for the same basic reason. The principle is that you can engage with adult actors but it is a particular thing to get performance out of young people. I think it again worked with Taliesen. In each case they were kind of dealing with themes that I would have felt connected to. For me there would have been a break and in the break there was a change. When I came back here I was trying to get Jenny’s Gift made, this thing that I tried really, really hard to get made. That would have been a continuation of what I was trying to do with working with young people. After three years I had to abandon it and any hope of getting it done in Ireland. Fate or whatever led me over to Berlin. In the past few years this Little Boy Priest has a boy as a central character but it is not a family film. The other stories that I am involved in, none of them are family films. One of the books that I wrote, Mothership, there are moves on developing that as a film project but it is a really big scale project. I have to sort of get back in the ring basically. It has been five years since I directed anything. I need to get in and start showing my colours again before it is possible to start looking at bigger budget things. The move has also been a change for me. I’m involved in a couple of things that are all adult things. There is an American thing - a political drama, a science fiction thing – me and science fiction have always been good together- there is a horror film ... Jenny’s Gift, if it could ever happen would be my attempt to try and deal with the subject of abuse that I was really trying to deal with and trying to get done here and failed to get done.
PW: You worked in children’s television in Ireland for a while, Bosco and Wanderly Wagon, Forty Coats – what is your view of children’s TV in Ireland as a genre? Do you see it as something that needs to be explored?
MD: I think it is completely underdeveloped, from what I can see. Television is different. Television works with a different set of things. I would still try to get work writing different episodes and stuff when work like that comes along. For me it is simply fun. There is always a sense of political correctness to it that can always be a bit boring. A couple of years ago I met with a couple of heads of the Irish Film Board asking what was the policy on family film and was told plain and straight that ‘we don’t have a policy on family film’... I have gotten to know a lot of people within the family film-making community, internationally. There is a friend of mine who used to run the Amsterdam Children’s Film Festival. He told me that at a press conference a filmmaker was there with his third or fourth family film and one of the interviewers said ‘so when are you going to make a real film?’. So, none of these things have been a career move, if they were I would have handled it much better. But in terms of where I am now, if it seems that I am somebody who tries to make family films, I am not. The one that I really tried to get made, Jenny’s Gift, I just couldn’t get it together here, I just wasn’t getting the support I needed here in Ireland.
PW: Why do you think that was? Was it the theme?
MD: I think it was partly because of the theme. Partly because there was a transitional phase going on in the Irish Film Board. Nobody really knows how to make a decision and it got lost in development. The script actually suffered with every draft I was doing on behalf of the Board as I saw later from the script reports that I got through the Freedom of Information Act. I did something like six drafts and their script reports on the six drafts got progressively worse, as I was doing what they wanted me to do. The theme was something that people were afraid of. All I wanted to do is something that still doesn’t exist. Which is to make a film on the subject of child abuse that you can show to young people. There have been films made about abuse and they are always horrific films and there was a dreadful, and I don’t mind being quoted on saying this, a dreadful Irish film called Park [John Carney, 1999] about a woman who goes into therapy because she realises she was abused as a kid and ends up committing suicide. I mean, I was abused when I was a kid. You want to give a story that you recovered, you can recover, there is a way out. To tell kids if it happens, you can do this, you can do this, told in a story, but also letting them know that there is a way out. You are not in a cul de sac, you won’t die, you don’t have to kill yourself. There is a way out and a healing and so on at the end.
PW: That area certainly needs to be developed, the idea of family films in Ireland, the topics that you are talking about too. That is what came up at the Kaleidoscope Seminar that you were at a few years ago, basically questioning why there was no specific funding for children or family films. It almost seems to be lip service in a way. Seminars like that are great, but I don’t know if we have actually seen anything come out of it.
MD: I honestly do think that there is a sort of a hip coolness that doesn’t go with family films that is part of the problem. You get a complete reversal in countries like in Denmark, everybody’s hero, where twenty five percent of the budget goes for family films. People then end up making great family films, constantly winning awards....
PW: I think you have covered most of the stuff, jumped right in there and answered most of the questions, which is brilliant.
MD: Great, well if you want to read the books, they are what they are. Mothership is still ongoing as a plan. It was originally the first of three. I have written the second as a novel and the third exists in script but not yet as a novel. There is a plan, when I have the time to sit down and write the trilogy as one book. There are a couple of producers who see it as along term plan to make these films.
PW: Was there an attempt before to make them as films?
MD: I tried to make the first book as a film a few years ago, but I only got to maybe half the budget or something.