THE ROAD TO MERCURY
STORY OF A PERSONAL VOYAGE AS THE MAKER OF A FIRST FEATURE FILM
In early April 1996 I sat in a Dublin cafe with Trish McAdam and Paddy
Breathnach waiting for an event where we would talk about our
experiences of making our first feature films. The event had been
delayed, so we wound up chatting and comparing notes on what we'd been
through. It started turning into a very enjoyable form of group
therapy, and at one point Trish commented that making your first
feature film is a major life experience. It sure is. I'm a different
person now after going through the process of writing and directing THE
BOY FROM MERCURY. Something happens to you when a childhood delusion
becomes a 1.3 million pound film and turns you into a feature film
director. Thanks to the newly reconstituted Irish Film Board,
there has been a spate of people crossing that wondrous threshold in
I know that in the days leading up to the making of my film I yearned
to be able to sit down with someone and just go through what I was
about to face. And writing this account of my adventure is a small
gesture towards anyone out there who gets something from it that might
be of use in their own journey through the making of a film.
To set the stage for the story, I must begin by outlining my
background. I come from the working class Dublin suburb of Crumlin. I'm
the youngest of thirteen children (not counting those who didn't make
it to adulthood) and had an isolated childhood. My mother was forty six
and my father fifty when I was born. There's a five year gap between
myself and the next up the line of siblings. There's a four year gap
between her and the next up again. Beyond that there's a great cluster,
and then a few older children including my eldest sister who was
already married with three children when I was born.
My first job, at the age of fifteen, was as an apprentice projectionist
in what was then the Kenilworth cinema in Harold's Cross. Falling in
love with cinema, I wrote to Ardmore Film Studios seeking a job as a
camera trainee. The manager at the time, Dermot Loughrey, wrote back to
say that the studio only employed people with Leaving Certificates.
This was probably his way of shaking me off. I responded by informing
him that I had commenced studies to sit the exam. I studied through
Kilroy's Correspondence College and had them send my monthly reports to
Dermot. In the space of a year, while working full time, I caught up on
three year's schooling and sat the exam. When I wrote to Dermot to tell
him I'd done so, he brought me in for an interview and gave me a job on
the spot as a trainee in the sound department - basically working as a
projectionist. It was 1969. At the time of my arrival, 'Country Dance'
starring Peter O'Toole had just finished shooting and John Boorman's
'Leo the Last' was being post-synched.
'Quackser Fortune has a cousin in the Bronx' was mixed while I was in
the sound department, and then I got my big break as clapper/loader.
Those were the most exciting times of my youth. I worked on
commercials, and ultimately on the feature film 'Black Beauty' which
was Chris Menges' second feature film as cinematographer. I was living
a full and wonderful life when all of a sudden the bubble burst and
Ardmore was closed down. I cried the day I was given my notice. After
only a year I was no longer in the film business.
Over the following seven years I worked as a shoe salesman, an office
stationery salesman, a mail order business owner, a labourer, a night
watchman, and for four and a half years a postman. I had married at the
age of twenty one and had two sons by the age of twenty six. Since as
far back as I can remember I wrote stories, and from the time I went
into the post office I tried to alleviate my crushing boredom by
writing novels. All were unpublishable rubbish.
One day, through the great gesture of a now lost friend named Kieran
Kehoe, I received an application form in the post for a job as trainee
assistant film cameraman in RTE. This was 1978 and RTE were increasing
their staff for the launch of RTE 2. Kieran had seen the advertisements
and posted in for a job application in my name and address. I
ultimately got a job as trainee assistant film editor, and at almost
the same time also sold my first television play to RTE - 'Your
Favourite Funny Man', starring Jim Bartley.
In my years in RTE I became a highly regarded film editor, sold more TV
plays, had various minor works produced on radio and the stage, and
lost a marriage. By 1984 I had stopped writing because I blamed it for
my inability to have peace with the life I was living. Michael
Monaghan, then head of young peoples' programmes, encouraged (bullied,
actually) me to write a batch of scripts for the children's' series
'Bosco' and in so doing brought me back to words.
In 1986 I left RTE to become a freelance editor and have more time to
write. This actually turned out to be an ongoing struggle for
financial survival, with the writing periods overshadowed by worries
about money. Being in the freelance world - certainly in Ireland - is
not a profession for the faint hearted.
In 1988, thanks to full funding by RTE, I wrote, edited and
directed my short film 'Splice of Life' which is the story of an editor
who re-edits himself. It starred Paul Bennett, who had to place a great
deal of trust in me as I assured him that standing here, turning there,
and pausing before this line would give me editing options.
In 1987 I had received development funding from the first Irish Film
Board to write a script called 'Love and Subtitles' - a romantic
comedy. After much effort by myself and my then partner Emer Reynolds,
the project didn't budge. Then came the dark ages. The Film Board
was closed down by Charles Haughey and Ray Burke brought in the
Broadcasting Bill. It was around that time, as Burke was talking about
'levelling the playing pitch' for an independent broadcaster, that Alan
Gilsenan as chairman of Film Makers Ireland commented that film makers
were tired of being the football. To add to these troubles there was
also a great deal of turmoil in my personal life. A relationship I
cared deeply about came to a difficult end, my youngest son Steven
emigrated to America with my ex-wife and my mother had an accident
which began a slow and harrowing journey to death. I reached the lowest
point in my life in 1990 after my mother's death.
But I came back.
I worked and wrote and sorted myself out. I eventually entered a stable
relationship and did a lot to come to terms with myself. All the while,
I was finding a greater and greater satisfaction in writing for
When Michael D. Higgins, God bless his tweed ties, renewed the Irish
Film Board in 1993, I submitted a treatment for a film called
'Interesting Things I did when I was living on my own'. It didn't get
development support, and Lelia Doolan suggested that I come back to the
Board with 'Love and Subtitles'. I might well have done so, but in the
meantime something else had happened. I'd come up with this story about
a boy who believes he doesn't belong to his family - he reckons he's
from the planet Mercury.
Luly Mason is a friend I love very much and who has always been lucky
for me. Early in 1993 she had sent me information about a competition
for a children's story, but I didn't have anything to hand. The
challenge of coming up with an entry for the competition triggered
memories of my childhood and a lost world made its first humble
appearance in a little story called 'Runaway Harry'. It was written in
Enid Blyton fashion and told an incident of Harry thinking he has shot
a boy and then running away from home but soon having this frantic
fantasy sorted out.
When the Film Board had turned me down it occurred to me that I had
never combined the two aspects of children's writing and screenplays. I
realised that here at last could be a piece which could combine the
best of me - a semi-autobiographical tale which would be a family film
that I would write and direct.
I went down to Lelia with the submission in late 1993 and we talked
about it. I felt at the time that this really was my best shot, and I
went about my other work as an editor while waiting for my project, THE
BOY FROM MERCURY, to go through the decision making system of the Board.
In December 1993, while working on an edit in Belfast, I heard through
the grapevine that decisions had been made and I phoned the Board.
James Flynn answered and said "I think I have good news for you". He
put my heartbeat on hold while he went off to check documents and came
back with the word. "Yes, you're getting development support. We love
The journey on the road to Mercury had begun.
I think I've structured this book sensibly. It first tells the story of
how the deal came together, then how the film was planned, then how it
was shot and post produced, and finally my adventures with it in the
real world. In a separate section - and treated almost like a case
study - is the story of the script itself.
I hope you find it an interesting read. A while back I came across a
quote I fell in love with. It comes from Man Ray. He said 'there are
very few practical dreamers'. I love that quote because it describes
what I am. I'm a practical dreamer.
And this is the story of how my dream of making a film came true.
One major word of thanks is necessary. I can honestly say that my dream
of becoming a film maker would probably never have come true if not for
the Irish Film Board. I thank the Board, and the Government that
brought the Board back into existence, and of course Michael D Higgins
for daring to create an infrastructure for film.
THE STORY OF THE DEAL
In October 1993 there was a seminar organised in conjunction with the
Cork Film Festival on the subject of 'The Writer in the Marketplace'.
Before the event I sent a copy of the initial treatment of THE BOY FROM
MERCURY to the organisers who passed it on to Christian Routh of the
European Script Fund. At that time, however, I was concerned about the
fact that Barry Devlin was completing his first feature film - 'All
things Bright and Beautiful'. It sounded like similar turf to my own
story, and when I met him at the seminar I mentioned my fears. Barry
was sweet about the matter, assuring me that everyone has their own
story to tell and that I shouldn't worry about similarities. During the
event people like myself with projects were divided into small groups
and my group was in discussion with Christian Routh. Christian was very
encouraging about the project and even introduced me to a new word by
describing the story as 'verdant'. I also talked briefly to David Blake
Knox. David, as head of drama in RTE, was a possible source of help
with an RTE/BBC Script Fund and after the seminar I sent a copy of the
treatment to him.
One thing I learned quickly was the value of communication. After word
from the Board about their support, I wrote to Christian Routh of ESF
and also to David Blake Knox. The word soon came back from David that
he had some quibbles about the treatment but would basically support
its consideration by the RTE/BBC Script Fund. I used reactions
from David and others to develop a longer, more detailed treatment
which I could submit to him and also formally submit to the European
Script Fund. The ESF is the Holy Grail of development funding, and as
such was something in my wildest dreams. Later, I would learn that its
value was beyond financial. It would provide a process for the script
which became invaluable.
In January 1994 I went to the offices of the Irish Film Board to talk
through the project with its newly appointed head Rod Stoneman. I had
met Rod years before when I was editing 'Hushabye Baby' and he was
Deputy Commissioning Editor of the Channel Four Independent Film and
Video department that was investing in the film. Rod, being like myself
a child inside a man, was enthusiastic about the project. His main area
of concern was the fact that I, as writer and director, didn't have a
producer. He offered some names, and I could tell him that I had
approached and been turned down by such people as Russ Russell and
fellow Crumliner Noel Pearson. He would later offer other possible
partners such as Hilary McLaughlin, but I knew deep down one thing that
so many in the Irish film industry know - there is a paucity of film
producers. Everyone in Ireland is a storyteller but no one wants to
arrange the venue and gather the ears.
I couldn't be a producer. I had suffered one miserable experience in
March 1993 which taught me so more vividly than necessary. There was a
Media '92 event being held in - of all places - the Whiskey Corner. The
notion was that at this place people with projects would get to meet
people who produced projects. I arrived at this event with a lumpy
envelope full of copies of the treatment, and was there under the
delusion that I would waft around, find the right person for the
project, then sell the idea and initiate a deal. I remember at one
stage having Scott Meek of Zenith pointed out to me and standing across
the room having made eye contact but unable to actually approach him or
open my mouth. Martin Mahon was my ally that day (he is so every day)
and was introducing me to people like Karen Street of ESF and
also Ed Guiney who in turn was trying to introduce me to Big Important
Film People from around Europe. The resounding truth about my nature
and personality became painfully clear - I don't want to be introduced
to people, I only want to know people.
By the end of the event I walked out numbed and feeling incredibly
stupid. As a bird never flew on one wing, so a project never got off
the ground on creative wings alone. Every film needs a deal maker, and
the precious few in this country had no interest in me.
I went to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in March for a week to write the
script and the first draft was dated March 17th - Saint Patrick's Day.
When I got home on Sunday I was weary but elated. Over the following
days I made twenty copies of my script and sent them off in all
directions so I could start getting feedback. I made a basic mistake
then which I'd never repeat - I sent copies to potential sources of
production funding. The script wasn't nearly ready for consideration,
and you really only get one shot at the full attention of a source of
funding. Among the people I sent scripts to where Zenith North, a wing
of Zenith specialising in children's films. To this day I haven't even
received an acknowledgement from them - despite a reminder note to
Scott Meek. That's what happens when you operate under the delusion
that someone is going to pick up an unsolicited first draft screenplay
with no sense of reality attached to it and go running to the head of
the company who then says "let's make this movie!'
I wanted to learn what others had to say about my work, and the
sensible choices for sending it were within my circle of friends and
not too far beyond. Copies went to, among others, the Board, Bob Quinn,
and a woman I thought of contacting in Belfast. This woman was running
a children's film festival called Cinemagic. Her name, Eina
McHugh. She was the first vital step in getting the film made. I
sent her a script in the hope that she might offer connections
somewhere out there in the world who might read my script and consider
producing the film. Eina wrote back a glowing letter of praise and soon
we were in phone contact. Finally we met in Bewleys one day when she
and Shona McCarthy were in Dublin for some meetings. Eina wasn't
offering herself as producer and no results had come back from any
feedback she had sought from producers of children's films she had come
across. What did happen, however, was that she mentioned a college
friend of hers who was a lawyer and wanted to work in the area of film.
Eina set up a meeting between myself and this woman - Marina Hughes.
By the time I met Marina there were pressures descending on both of us.
She was just finishing work as legal adviser on the Mary McGuckian film
"Words upon a Window Pane" while I had made my submission to the
European Script Fund assuring them that I would have a producer on
board by the time they were making their final funding decisions. Those
decisions were at hand, and I was still on my own with the project.
The project always had a certain momentum, and there always seemed to
be a deadline on the horizon as soon as I passed a particular
benchmark. The project had a small amount of development funding, but
really the European Script Fund was the only source of enough money to
pave the way to getting the film made. Marina wanted to be involved,
but was conscious of her own lack of experience and wanted to offer
herself as associate producer.
What the project needed was a shot in the arm. Eina was providing that
by offering links, and the first way of realising those links was by
meeting people. On the near horizon was the biggest market of them all
- Cannes. In early May 1994, I formed Mercurian Productions with
Marina. With no money and little income, we agreed that a spare room in
her home would be the base for the company and would be where we kept
the fax machine - humble beginnings. With so little understanding or
trust of the film industry in the Irish financial world, there was
really only one choice for banking - the ACC Bank has long been a major
sponsor of the Dublin Film Festival and when Marina and I contacted
Eugene Horgan he happily set up an account for the company. We also met
with Rod Stoneman in Galway to talk through a rewrite of the script and
took on board his comments. One great thing that came from the
meeting was a sense from Rod that the Board liked the project and if we
came back with a plausible approach we would get a production loan. Rod
stressed that we needed to go to Cannes and promised to do whatever he
could on our behalf.
At this stage we still lacked a producer and I was offered other names
in the Irish industry - all of whom passed on the project. Marina,
however, made contact with Line Producer Kate Lennon and she began
working on a budget for the film. We had a notional figure of œ800,000,
which seemed like an achievable ambition.
Eina had ideas about people who might be interested in the project, and
when the time came Marina flew off to the Cannes Film Festival
with Eina looking for contacts. I, still not up to the job of selling
myself or pitching my ideas, stayed at home and worked on the next
draft of the script.
Marina came back with our first co-production partner - Peter Aalbeck
of the Danish company Zentropa was offering a ten percent involvement.
On the roller coaster which is film making, we were heading up. We
rushed a letter to Rod Stoneman and the Script Fund to let them know
the film was gathering momentum.
I had made the hard decision by now of turning my back on editing.
Having already turned down two jobs which would have meant months of
work, I still needed some work to pay the bills. I was doing a small
edit in Film Base when I got a phone call from none other than the
European Script Fund, and it was a surreal experience. There was no
phone in the cutting room, and so I had to take the call in the small
hallway. A woman named Sue Austin was on the phone, and she wanted to
talk to me about the project. We were on a final short list, and she
wanted to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of our approach. I began
talking to her - and in particular trying to explain how we would
overcome the problem of not yet having a producer, when film maker Joe
Comerford, working with an editor in the next room, was visited by his
wife Hilary Dully and the began a conversation in the hallway. I was
sitting on the floor trying to concentrate hard on how I could sway
this woman to believing Mercurian Productions could make the film
happen, while Joe and Hilary innocently continued their conversation.
With the final decision to be made in days this was my big chance to
convey my vision of the film and my understanding of what the ESF
perceived as the shortcomings, all the while trying to hear Sue over
the din of the conversation and the noise from the adjoining cutting
The conversation ended and I was left in limbo knowing that it would be
at least another week before final decisions were announced.
By the end of May I finished the new draft of the script. Kate Lennon
had also completed a draft budget of the film which came in at
œ812,000. The end of May was the deadline for the Film Board's next set
of decisions on loans, and we applied for a production loan of œ200,
000. On the first of June, unable to contain my restlessness, I
phoned the European Script Fund asking how near the decisions were. To
my surprise I was put through to Phil Hughes who was at liberty to tell
me that the decisions had been made and ratified by Brussels. We were
to receive 15,000 ECUs in development support. I was on a high -
finally I had written something that was attracting momentum towards
production! Wanting to make the film became a constant prayer and
preoccupation and I felt that crossing the ESF barrier would set this
film apart and surely lead to bringing the finances together.
At the start of June, with Marina about to go away for several weeks,
we sat down to complete the paperwork for the ESF loan and discuss
plans for the future. Among the necessary details at this stage was the
assigning of the screen rights to Mercurian Productions. It was a time
also for getting the new draft script out to the round of involved
parties and for approaching David Blake Knox in RTE Drama to again see
if he could bring development funding to us through the RTE/BBC fund.
With all this movement forward, however, a response from Niall Leonard
at BBC Northern Ireland brought a tolerable setback. He was standing in
the way of the project getting BBC/RTE finds because he didn't like the
script. He didn't like the fact it was set in the past nor did he like
the idea that the film didn't clearly fit into the category of adult or
At the end of June, however, a fax came in from Jan Vandierendonck of
the company Inti Films in Belgium - another contact through Eina McHugh
- saying he was interested in co-production and the film moved another
notch forward. I sent a copy of the fax and any other news I
could think of to Rod at the Film Board knowing that their decisions
were only a month away.
In early July, as the complex process of completing the ESF legal
requirements for releasing the stages of their funding was underway, I
met legal advisor Mary Brehoney through a service organised by Film
Base. It was a very useful consultation and helped smooth the path
through to getting the ESF money where it was needed - in the Mercurian
account where it could start financing the things we needed to do.
By mid July Marina was back in Ireland and we went for a day to Galway
for a 'Film Shop' event organised as part of the Film Fleadh. The
layout was basically a large room of stalls in a hotel and at each
stall/booth were representatives of different organisations. We were
given a set of requested meetings; with representatives of RTE, BBC
Northern Ireland, ESF, Bord Trachtala and the Film Board. Karen Street
and Bernie Stampfer were present for the ESF, and it was the first time
I had a chance to talk to Karen even half properly. I was delighted to
find that she really liked THE BOY FROM MERCURY and she was very
supportive. In her conversation with Bernie, meanwhile, Marina was
being offered helpful links for possible investors. Mick McCarthy was
the RTE rep and as we knew each other from my days of working there as
an editor we simply had a friendly chat and he wished me well with the
project's journey in search of funding from RTE. Niall Leonard of BBC
Northern Ireland remained to be convinced that the script worked. I
talked more with him about the fact that the story needed to be set in
the past and explained that it was too black and white a view to say a
film must be either for adults or for children. He promised to
reconsider and get back to us - which he duly did with a definite 'no'.
Derry O'Brien of Bord Trachtala met us and was willing to commit
further support to the project. He needed a travel plan, but it was
plain that he acknowledged the 'critical mass' the project had gained
through support from the Board and the ESF and was keen to help us get
out and find the rest of the money. Marina and I also met James Flynn,
business manager of the Film Board. He was supportive and friendly but
sounded one warning as the decision day approached. There were a lot of
applications before the Board for production funding and the final
choices would be those projects that looked most likely to happen.
My years of writing were being put more and more to the art of writing
persuasive letters. With James' warning ringing in my ears I penned a
letter to Rod which summed up the main elements of progress to date.
Through the ESF we were making contact with a company called PDG in
Belgium. Eina was looking at ways that Cinemagic might be able to offer
more support to us in looking for backers. Supporting the film would
lead to an Irish family film being on Irish cinema screens by Christmas
1995 in the European Year of the Family. I outlined our travel plans
and my aim at getting Colm Meaney to play the part of Uncle Tony.
Lyrically I waxed and off went the letter. There was nothing to do then
but wait. And I'm terrible at waiting.
The decision day was Friday July 28th. I spent the day climbing the
walls and watching the time tick away. Finally in the late afternoon I
could contain myself no more and phoned the offices of the Board. I was
put through to James Flynn who told me that the Board were offering a
production loan of œ150,000 to the project. I was stunned. I splurged
out my thanks. When I hung up my first response was to yelp with
delight. Then I felt my first rush of a new emotion on the film
making roller coaster - fear. This was becoming a reality. Was I up to
it? I poured myself a whiskey and knocked it back - then phoned Marina.
She came down to the house and we had another drink. We both needed all
this to sink in, and when Marina departed I felt so dazed that I left a
note for Rachel telling the good news and then fell into bed. I woke to
a small celebration as Rachel and my sons Bernard and Steve greeted me
with champagne. There's a photo of that moment which I keep near my
desk. I'm sitting on a lovely summer evening holding a glass of
champagne as my sons stand on either side of me. There's a look of
absolute terror on my face.
Having production funding from the Board sparked a new flurry of
activity. It seemed at all times important to have a certain amount of
'heat' around the film and so it was great to be able to go back to
people like Zentropa or send new faxes to suggested companies letting
them know that here was a project supported by both the Irish Film
Board and the European Script Fund. Thanks to the production loan, we
could source 25% of the budget in Ireland (when you add the Section 35
tax break money available). This added to 10% from Zentropa in cash and
facilities and a hoped-for further 10% in cash and facilities from RTE
meant we were almost halfway there.
In a phone conversation, James Flynn went through comments from the
Board and it transpired that a major concern was that the film was
under budgeted. The feeling was that the film should be œ1.1 or œ1.2
million. He recommended we seek Film Action Plan approval as soon as
possible to ensure we could stay within even that kind of budget and
said we needed a strong line producer. Our next signpost along the way,
however, was the EuroAim Rendezvous which was the Galway Film Shop writ
large. Four days in Berlin gathered in one place with other film makers
but also investors, distributors and bankers. The key to membership was
having at least 40% of the budget in place, but with a budget of œ1.2
million the commitments to date for the film actually only totalled 35%.
By late August, however, we received the good news that we were being
accepted for the Rendezvous. First trip for us, however, was a one day
visit to London for meetings with Jessica Pope at Ardent Films and
Grainne Marmion at Red Rooster, both of whom had expressed interest in
the project. When we arrive at the Ardent office, however, we were
informed that Jessica had taken ill. With time on our hands we
contacted the offices of the ESF and were able to drop over to them.
Bernie Stampfer and his assistant Amanda Steele went through our 'hit
list' of meetings we hoped to make at the Rendezvous and advised some
alterations - offering a few new names and so on. We then went to the
offices of Red Rooster and met Grainne Marmion. The meeting began
cordially and as Grainne had already indicated that the company was
over-committed we didn't expect much of an outcome. After discussing
the film more, however, she said that she wanted to convince her bosses
to invest in it. She liked the script very much, and as the meeting
continued she began talking more about 'how' as opposed to 'if' there
would be Red Rooster involvement. The meeting ended with her saying we
were free to list the company as an interested party when approaching
others at the Rendezvous. Marina and I left feeling the project
was in a very strong position and that all the signs were becoming
positive that we would be going into production early the following
year as planned.
Over the following weeks, all time was taken up sending faxes and
making calls to set up our meetings for the Rendezvous. There were some
we wanted that couldn't be arranged, but basically things looked good.
Peter Aalbeck Jensen of Zentropa would be there and by meeting him we
hoped to firm up the Zentropa involvement. David Blake Knox - with whom
I had been trying and failing to set up a meeting - would also be
there. I looked forward to the event with fear and excitement. I was
becoming more adept at selling myself and the project.
On the flight over we met a few other Irish film makers - including
Fintan Connolly and Hilary Dully. Marina and I were staying in a
cheapish hotel on the Kurrfurstendamm, the main street of Berlin. This
was a fifteen minute walk away from the very plush hotel where most of
the key players were staying. On the evening of our arrival we settled
in and prepared our plans. We'd arrived laden down with copies of our
'package' - a few pages on the project, a synopsis of the story and so
on - along with a few copies of the script. Marina's room looked out
over the street itself, and as we talked I leaned out over the small
balcony to look at the Cathedral and wonder at the fact that I - never
a great traveller - was actually in Berlin.
The days that followed were a regimented hot house of production
funding. We would go to the main hotel and board coaches which drove us
out to Babelsburg Studios. There, a large marquee had been erected
outside one of the studios. The marquee was for refreshments, food, and
informal gatherings. The studio space had been converted into a
marketplace of separated rooms where the meetings took place. Each day
there was a list of meetings - mostly lasting about twenty minutes,
with spaces in the day when other meetings were sought. The structure
was very ordered - each project and each financier had pigeon holes.
You would put the flyer for your film in the pigeon hole of a financier
you hoped to meet, and if you were lucky the next time you checked
there would be a note from them agreeing a meeting.
The earliest significant meeting we had was not about sourcing finance
but about how we approached these meetings. An agent named Julian
Friedman was on hand for these sessions and we pitched to him as we
would in the meetings to come. He gave us various reactions to our
approach. He reckoned that the best selling point for THE BOY
FROM MERCURY was the nostalgia market. He said that with each meeting
we should start by saying a little about ourselves, then listen to get
an understanding of the people to whom we were pitching, and then
proceed to pitch the story. The emphasis, he felt, should be on our
competence to make the film. He said I should emphasise my experience
in the film business and my enthusiasm for the film - not being afraid
to emphasise the emotional pull of the film. Julian advised that
financiers are looking for someone they can trust who has a project
which will be successful.
I finally met Peter Aalbeck - a red haired Dane with greying beard and
cheerful disposition. Watching him over the following days, I could
always tell if a meeting had gone well for him because he would light
up a cigar and breeze around the marquee looking like a child who'd
gotten his own way. Peter set up a meeting for us with Svend
Abramson, head of co-productions for Danish TV, in the hope that Svend
would agree an investment in the production. On the second day, We
gathered for a crucial meeting - Peter, Svend, Marina, David Blake Knox
and myself. Peter wanted to pull a deal together and evoked a fine
reason for this unlikely alliance. We were all Vikings. David offered
support in principle and Svend promised to try source money for the
film. As the meeting ended, Peter lit up a cigar.
The days of meetings became a blur. It was usually possible to
establish quite quickly if there was any point to them at all. Sales
agents and distributors were really only interested in seeing the film
after it was made - not a great help to us. The project was too small
for other companies we approached, but a favourite moment for me was
the meeting with Brigitta Peitz of the German company Cinevox. Having
heard our pitch, she tore the page about THE BOY FROM MERCURY out of
the event's book of projects and put the page in her folder. Brigitta
was also interested in another project of mine, THE DREAMIST and as I
spoke to her I said that project could also lead to a TV series. In
later weeks I would sit down and write a submission on how the TV
series would work along with scenarios for episodes and sent this to
her. In the end, nothing came of that lead.
One morning, going out on the coach, I noticed that a man in front of
me was reading a German newspaper. The page was open on an article
about Roddy Doyle. It occurred to me that it took the achievement of
people like Doyle and Jim Sheridan to get to the point where one could
go out into an international marketplace with such a particularly Irish
film as ours. At the meetings, I would shamelessly describe my story as
"The Snapper meets My Life as a Dog" and this was an expression that
helped people get an instant sense of what the project was about.
One meeting that went well was with Richard Leworthy of the large sales
company Primetime. He heard us out with the pitch and looked at markets
and seemed very favourably disposed to us and the project. We were told
this was good news because they were a company with a high reputation
and solid money.
For all the formal meetings there, however, it was a chance encounter
that would lead to a breakthrough in darker times to come. Several
years ago, shortly after I left the employ of RTE, I had been
approached to edit a documentary being produced by Mark Forstater
Productions. In the end the deal changed and the edit didn't happen in
Ireland so I wasn't involved. One day, while sitting having coffee in
the marquee, I noticed that a man in conversation at the next table was
wearing the name tag 'Mark Forstater'. I introduced myself and we
chatted briefly about the fact that we'd almost worked together. We
would bump into each other from time to time thereafter and chat about
how things were going. Mark was there trying to complete funding for a
project of his own, but heard me out as I chatted about my project and
the state of play with it. On the last day we carried out the time
honoured ritual of exchanging business cards and said goodbye.
We came home from Berlin exhausted. I still have a dull memory of our
last pitch - during which I had something close to an out-of-body
experience as I listened to myself saying 'it's like The Snapper meets
My Life as a Dog' and all the other attending verbiage. The night after
our return, however, I got a phone call from Marina saying a fax had
come in from Primetime saying they were interested in the project and
look forward to meeting us to go over the details of a deal. I couldn't
believe it. All along I'd been haunted by the fear of disappointment -
I didn't want to fail again as I'd done with 'Love and Subtitles'. I
didn't want to be another potential film maker trying for years on end
to get a budget together. And now both Primetime and Red Rooster were
interested in completing the deal to finance the film. At this stage we
sent out more scripts to people from the Rendezvous and had a total of
twenty two leads being followed up. But the key hopes (with the Board
already behind us) were RTE, Zentropa, Red Rooster, Primetime, and the
supportive voice of Jan Vandierendonck who had yet to confirm how he
could become involved in the deal.
What followed was a deafening long silence. People were away at
markets during October. People were involved in other dealings. Calls
weren't returned. I was extremely broke at the time and even the
weather was depressing, but day after day there seemed to be nothing to
do but wait.
At the start of November word came back from Grainne Marmion. She
couldn't convince her bosses to go with the film as they already felt
they had a full enough slate in hand. She said everyone loved the
script. I was miserable over the news, and the following day I decided
to phone Primetime to at least find out when we might be able to set a
meeting with Richard Leworthy. I instead found myself in conversation
with another executive in the company who said the script had been read
and everyone loved it. However it wasn't seen as something they could
market and so they couldn't be involved. I made the call around midday.
After it, I drank a glass of whiskey and fell into bed, sleeping for a
few hours. I curled in a state of shock as the hopes of the previous
months turned to ashes. It had been my hope to film in the Spring of
1995. But we were back at square one.
I spent a few days dulled by depression, and in a moment of feeling
sorry for myself I just decided to phone Mark Forstater to ask if he
was faring any better. It turned out that he wasn't particularly
gaining any headway from the Rendezvous experience, and as we continued
feeling sorry for ourselves and each other he made a suggestion. He
said his partner, Jo Manuel, had made a film in Ireland before -
'Widow's Peak' - and asked if I'd like her to read my script. Naturally
I was happy to do so and sent a script straight away. I then got back
to the business of fretting over how we could get this film off the
A few days later Jo Manuel phoned. She said she loved the script and
wanted to know what ground we'd covered to date in the search for
funding. Marina and I shared the call as we went through the story so
far, and Jo concluded by saying she believed she could complete the
financing of the film and wanted to meet us. After the call Marina and
I went down to the local video store to check out 'Widow's Peak' while
I tried to get accustomed to the damn roller coaster all over again.
Jo received all our work to date and then set a date for our meeting.
Her assistant Debbie Davis, a young Australian woman who had experience
in script editing for television, was also going through the script. At
the end of November Marina and I went to London for the day to meet Jo
and Debbie. Jo is a strong woman with a very straight business manner.
The pleasantries of meeting herself and the diminutive Debbie went
quickly and we settled down to brass tacks. Jo produced a report
on the script and at the sight of this Marina immediately leapt in to
say that we were looking for a co-producer and not to a producer. Jo
smiled and agreed, then we continued with the process of discussing the
script, the budget, and the work that had been done to date. Jo said
she wasn't willing to present the script in its present state to
potential backers, and as we went through it I could accept many of the
points made. The plan agreed by the end of the meeting was that I would
produce by the end of the year a new draft and the situation would be
reviewed in the new year with Jo believing that if the new draft worked
she could start going to sources of funding.
I returned home with a few things on my plate. I had to write a new
draft. I also needed to do a brief edit (with Margo Harkin, for whom I
had previously cut 'Hushabye Baby') and I had to undergo an operation.
Back when my marriage broke down I had a vasectomy, and I had decided
with my partner Rachel to have this reversed in the hope that we might
have children. In December Marina went to a Media '92 event being
held in Spain - a Film Business School - and would come back with a
notion which would finally reveal the cracks in our less than perfect
Eina McHugh was to provide yet another lift to the production by
introducing us to a young woman named Joanne Jordan. Joanne had worked
with Eina at Cinemagic and was interested in becoming more involved in
the film industry. Crucial for us at the time, Joanne was willing to
give of her time for free and moved to Dublin to work day in and day
out for us through even the bleakest time. She was always efficient and
always calm - and had an amazing gift for sailing blithely through the
often very tangible tensions between Marina and I. Joanne became the
bedrock of office efficiency and as meagre, well deserved reward was
ultimately the production office assistant on the film.
After meeting Jo Manuel I also decided it was time to start looking
seriously at how I was going to direct this film and began the process
of storyboarding - writing matchstick-man doodles for the shots. This
was how I spent my evenings after the days of editing. Workaholic that
I am, I timed my operation so that I could recuperate over Christmas. I
had completed the new draft of the script days before going in to
hospital and sent it to Jo.
In early January Marina and I went to Galway to meet Rod. He was
concerned about lack of progress, and his view was that there has to be
a cut-off point at which one acknowledges a project isn't going to
happen. He reckoned the cut-off point for THE BOY FROM MERCURY was the
summer of '95. On the positive side he indicated that the Board could
provide more funding if it made the difference to getting the film made.
Returning from Galway I looked over all the old notes I'd kept and
realised that still no tangible response had come from Jan
Vandierendonck. Making contact with him, we discovered that he had been
pushing the project in the Benelux territories and was trying hard to
come up with 20% of the budget. In particular he referred us to
Tharssius Van Huys whom Marina had met way back in Cannes and Tharssius
had thought that since he hadn't heard from us (we'd sent the script to
someone else in the company on the recommendation of Bernie Stampfer at
the ESF) that the deal was done.
The decline in relations between Marina took its first major downturn
shortly after Christmas. Marina felt that I was difficult to work with
and also that her slice of a deal for the film didn't reflect her
contribution to bringing the deal together. She also unveiled for the
first time the issue which would be our downfall - Marina believed that
all rights to THE BOY FROM MERCURY should be assigned to Mercurian
Productions. Not just the screenplay rights already held. All rights.
As in the rights held by an author's estate up to seventy years after
his death. The debate was set aside then because I wouldn't budge under
any circumstances on the issue of rights. We both wanted to get the
film made - we had at least that in common - but we were inclined to be
less and less involved with each other on a day to day basis.
Pressure mounting to fix a deal, Marina now set to work on a deal that
could complete the funding using a Eurimages loan - this being a Media
'92 fund which will come in with up to 12% of the budget for a film
which is being co-produced between three EC partners. The Berlin Film
Festival was coming up and she wanted to set up meetings which could
bring the deal together there. I contacted Zentropa with the list of
equipment required to see to what extent that could cover their 10%
involvement as a minimum partner in a Eurimages co-production. A
difficulty I was having, though, was that no one seemed to be able to
commit the gear to specific dates.
I was getting more and more obsessed about whether or not a deal was
coming together, and one day late in January I woke feeling that I was
going to explode if I didn't hear definite news from someone about
backing the film. Instead of facing another day of frustration,
however, I just left the house and went for a walk. I wound up going to
Mount Jerome cemetery to visit my parents' grave, and on the spur of
the moment decided to go rambling back over my childhood ground - the
landscape of THE BOY FROM MERCURY. I went past the Apollo Cinema which
I visited every Saturday as a boy, and on up through Sundrive Park
where I once kissed a childhood sweetheart, and crossed the road to the
little corner shop 'The Elmo' where I used to buy bags of broken
biscuits. I carried on up to the old folks homes which were built years
ago where there used to be a wasteland behind the houses that for some
reason we knew as 'the geygar'. From there I looked for the back of
what was my home and was surprised to see that both the kitchenette
extension and the coal shed had been demolished.
I went on up to my old school on Armagh Road where in my last year I
was abused and systematically beaten by a 'Christian' Brother. The vast
school looked like the victim of a stroke. One wing alive, the other
falling into decay with smashed windows. By a stroke of luck, I came
across a porter who let me in to wander inside and even unlocked the
classroom where I spent my last unhappy year as a school boy. I met a
woman who is a member of the Parent Teachers group there and was shown
some old photos of the school's past. It was the film come to life.
This was what I wanted to recapture.
Finally I went down Leighlin Road and past the house were I grew up.
Everything so different from my childhood when the doors were painted a
uniform but beautiful varnish. I carried on down Clogher Road, visiting
St Bernadette's Church which was completely empty and just as vast as I
recalled. When I got home I found out that Marina had been phoning
wondering about my absence. My eldest son Bernard came by, and he and
Rachel and I sat back and had some beers. I'm not great at relaxing,
but that's a day I still remember with fondness as one when I just
unplugged and drifted and was greeted with magic memories.
Early in February Marina and I set off on journeys which would
converge. I went to Jo Manuel to spend a day with Debbie going over the
script while Marina went to Copenhagen to try solidify a deal with
Zentropa. Talking on the phone I had mentioned to Debbie that while I
was comfortable with the notion of working through a script and
accepting suggestions, if I believed a suggestion was bad for the
script I wouldn't go ahead with it. Jo, on the other hand, had
indicated that if she wasn't going to approach anyone with the script
unless she felt happy with it. A lot, then, was riding on this day.
After a while working with Debbie at Jo's office, we decided to talk a
stroll and continue work on the script in a nearby park. I was
impressed by Debbie's absorption of the script and by the late in the
afternoon we had reached the end of the script without any major
differences. I then met up with Jo and Mark and went back to their home
for something small to eat. I liked working with them and I enjoyed
their company. It remained to be seen if I would come up with a script
that firstly Jo wanted to pass around and secondly brought investment.
At the end of the day I returned to the hotel and Marina arrived. We
talked about her day in Copenhagen, and while the Zentropa set-up was
impressive she realised that nailing down a deal was still proving
difficult. I went to bed but didn't sleep very well, waking in the
middle of the night to read over the script and the notes made. Next
day I could sit quietly through a meeting as Jo and Marina talked
through the budget, the deal, and Jo's plans for the script. She
mentioned that Mia Farrow (who had starred in "Widow's Peak") loved
Ireland and might take the part of Harry's mother. This I couldn't
accept - I felt strongly that Mia would be too much for the part.
Within a few days of my return to Dublin the new draft was complete. It
was at this stage that I produced what was later referred to by Karen
Street as 'a draft too far' - I was now starting to kill the story. It
had actually become too lean, and needed a draft later which would
restore the flesh which had been thrown out with the flab. It had
a running time of about seventy seven minutes, and had leant too much
over to the looming threat of 'Mucker'. The script analyst for the ESF
came back with emergency signals fearing that maybe I'd become too
close to the material and needed to bring in someone else. Jo Manuel
came back with comments from herself and Debbie about the script but
the next draft would be in March, after a stretch of travelling I was
about to undertake which I hoped would give me a chance to start seeing
the script clearly again.
The first leg of the journey was to the Berlin Film Festival where Eina
McHugh would help Marina and I make new contacts. We would also meet
Jan Vandierendonck and try again to set a deal with Peter Aalbeck. The
festival was mind-boggling in scale. When I first entered the building
to have my registration verified I though it was a big building. But
then I was cleared to go into the main body of the market area and
discovered it was all the first floor of a series of buildings
stretching the length of a street block. Marina was in her element in
these situations, but soon I was avoiding the frenzied activity and
going for long walks between arranged meetings. On our second evening
at the festival, however, the word filtered down (through what original
source I can't now remember) that RTE had made their decisions about
film drama funding and they were investing œ100,000 in THE BOY FROM
MERCURY. This was great news and even better timing as it created
something of a buzz around the film and encouraged the ubiquitous Rod
to further his efforts on our behalf.
One planned meeting took us out of Berlin for a return trip to
Babelsburg. Brigitta Peitz of Cinevox had agreed to meet us and the
company were still considering THE DREAMIST. In the event, however, we
were given a very short and inconclusive meeting with her before being
taken on a guided tour of the facilities and we all waved bye bye. We
met Peter Aalbeck again, and met Mona Jensen of the Danish Film
Institute who promised to support us in the project's consideration at
an upcoming Eurimages decision session. We also went for an extremely
pleasant meal with Jan Vandierendonck to a cafe in the still decrepit
but very lively west side of the city and met Frank Thomas of
Neue Deutche Film who loved the script and was trying to source funds
for us in Germany.
On our last night in Berlin Marina and I went for a meal together. What
began pleasantly - given the tensions that were growing between us -
took a downturn as Marina made another pitch for the total rights of my
story being assigned to Mercurian Productions. My impression was that
she had come to realise that producers usually control projects whereas
in this instance I had initiated and for that matter created the
project. All I could agree was that we would go to a business
advisor for neutral advice.
At this stage, casting seemed to be the element that could tilt the
scales. I had hoped to get Colm Meaney for the part of 'Uncle Tony' but
that having failed was trying to get Gabriel Byrne to play what I
believed would be an enjoyable departure for him. I had travelled from
Berlin to San Francisco to catch up with Rachel and stay with her
brother for a short holiday. Marina contacted me there saying that
finally there was a script with Gabriel who was in Los Angeles and I
should be on standby to fly down and meet him. A time was set for me to
call Marina reverse charge - I was visiting Alcatraz of all things at
the time! - but the word had come back that even though Gabriel loved
the script the part wasn't for him.
When I returned from the short holiday I sat down to reconcile the
warring elements of the script. Taking views on board, while also
getting clear in my head what views were unacceptable, I sat down and
wrote a draft which was completed by March 5th. This was my best shot
and I wasn't willing to do any more work on it for Jo. She had to
either go with this or decide to leave the project. When she called, it
was to say she was happy with the script and would now begin getting it
to her hit list for funding. The one definite piece of casting I sought
in Ireland was for Hugh O'Conor to play the part of Paul, and I felt
this draft of the script was strong enough to get to him. I managed to
find out his address and put a script in his letter box with a covering
letter explaining about myself and where the project stood.
By now I was well and truly broke and was delighted to accept the offer
of a small edit from Davy Hammond in Belfast. It was also sporadic
work, meaning I would still have some weekdays free in Dublin. Tucked
away in a cutting room in Belfast was probably the best place for me
anyway - I was out of harm's way while my fate was being decided.
On one of my free days in Dublin Marina and I went for the meeting she
had set up with an independent 'arbitrator' for our differences. What
followed was to me farcical and offensive and no conclusion was
reached. I went home and wondered if in fact I had to abandon the
project, or seek the advice of the Board in this situation. I couldn't
see myself being able to continue work with Marina. In the end Marina
and I sat down for a last time and agreed on the continuing of a
functional working relationship to get this film made. By mutual
agreement we would never work together again, and THE DREAMIST, which I
had begun to develop through the company, would no longer be pursued.
Back in Belfast I edited by day and worked on the second draft of the
storyboard by night. The Eurimages deadline had come and gone with no
submission from us because there weren't enough partners to make a
plausible deal. All I could do was wait for word from Jo. In early
April Marina went to Cannes for Mipcom and there would meet up with Jo
who was trying to firm up a deal. She came back with nothing but bad
news - Zentropa weren't in a position to commit their 10%, no new leads
were coming, Jo was getting nowhere, and a planned meeting with Frank
Thomas hadn't happened.
Recently I came across a great quote from John Sayles about financing a
film. He said finding the money for a film is like hitchhiking. You've
got to stand at the side of the road with your thumb out and it might
be the first car that stops or it might be the thousandth car. But the
tricky bit is knowing whether or not to get into the car. On April 19th
I got an excited call from Marina. A car had stopped. The story about
it was extraordinary. Trying to figure out possible new leads, Marina
happened to have a chat with Darryl Collins who had recently
co-produced Cathal Black's 'Korea'. He mentioned to her that Canal Plus
were looking at a project of his and might be worth a try. Marina
phoned Canal Plus who explained that they didn't deal directly with
submissions but worked through independent French production companies.
When Marina asked if they could suggest one, it was mentioned that the
French company Blue Dahlia had just opened an English partner company
Blue Rose and Marina took the details. Blue Rose turned out to be the
very experienced and admired French producer Sylvaine Sainderchin. When
Marina faxed the flyer about the project Sylvaine asked to see the
script. It was one of the first to come to the new office. Sylvaine
read it and passed it on to her French associate Gerard Jourd'hui. Then
she came back with the word that she believed she could bring a third
of the money to the film from France. Jo also came back with news that
people were beginning to nibble - The Overseas Film Group in the USA
seemed likely to come in with the rest of the money.
A date was set for Marina and I to go to London and then team up with
Jo for a meeting with Sylvaine and her assistant Patricia. The office
looked every bit like it had just been occupied, but it had already
been established that Blue Rose were very definite players and could
source whatever money they said they could source. Sylvaine is a
remarkably private and self-assured woman, but then as in times to come
she was quiet about her views. She had warmed to the story and listed a
few points - easily dealt with - that had come back from France (I was
never sure if this was from Canal Plus or from Blue Dahlia). She then
went on to discuss her interest in the film and talked about being able
to supply Canal Plus funding. Her one concern was about casting and
bringing good names to the film. In the middle of this Jo's mobile
phone rang and she took the call. Then smiled. It was a movie moment -
Debbie had phoned to say that word had just come from Hugh O'Conor's
agent saying he would commit to the film.
That instant, to me, was the point at which the deal became a reality.
The story didn't actually end there because there were further
machinations around the other third of the financing before Sylvaine
came back with the news that Canal Plus wanted to put in all remaining
finance in return for world rights. This in turn led to further
meetings, and in particular to film solicitor James Hickey coming in to
guide contracts through. Others who might have been involved - like
Frank Thomas and Peter Aalbeck - were swept aside by the clout of the
solid Canal Plus deal. But from that moment on I was convinced as I
hadn't been before that I was about to make my first feature film.
After the meeting I went for a long walk and found myself in
Hammersmith where once, years before, I'd attended the dub of a film
I'd sound edited for the North of Ireland film maker and poet Damien
Gorman. The work had happened at a profoundly low time in my personal
and professional life, and on the night of the dub when Damien and I
dined together I wound up pouring out my heart about frustrations and
my sense of failure. Next morning Damien had left the hotel before me
and had left a note at reception. It said "Martin Duffy, dear old Duff,
should be doing his own stuff". Sitting down in a bar near that
restaurant to raise a toast to myself after the big meeting, I quoted
the lines in my notebook and added "I am".
The more I've learned learned about the job of directing, the less
appropriate I consider the job title. I really felt I should be called
the navigator. I had a script and - if you'll excuse the cliche - a
vision and had to guide these through the challenging waters to the
safe harbour of the screen. That bit of waxing lyrical over, I'd like
to give my account of how the film was made.
One of the most difficult things to be is a first time film director.
When potential backers looked at the project they were comforted by my
years of editing and writing, but it's quite a leap of faith to trust
an unknown to make a good film. What few realised was that I shared
The fear that gripped me when I first heard that the Irish Film Board
were giving a production loan to the film never fully went away. I had
directed only one short film before - 'Splice of Life' - and despite my
years of work as a film editor I had nagging doubts about my ability to
have anything more than a functional approach to making a film. When I
began late in 1994 to storyboard the film I tried to let my imagination
run free. But I couldn't keep my editor's instinct for coverage of
scenes in check and wound up with a shot list totalling seven hundred
set-ups. For a small budget film, this was probably half again what I
would be able to shoot. I kept wishing I could find a book that was
titled 'How to Direct a Feature Film' and while wandering the streets
of Berlin during the festival I came upon a shop with a collection of
film books in the window. Among them? 'Film Directing Shot by Shot' by
Stephen D Katz. I bought it immediately and it became a sort of bible.
Through its guidance I started to think more about how I would make the
film and began a new storyboarding draft. I can't draw and the previous
draft had been mostly squiggles. As advised by the book, however, I
traced images from old photos and magazines and used these as templates
as I began the process of setting out shot by shot my plans for making
the film. The process - which I found tedious and frustrating - lasted
two months. In the end, however, I at least had something which could
inform plans for scheduling and could be viewed by one and all as the
masterplan which could be at least taken as the starting point for
filming the script. The number of shots totalled three hundred and
seventy six. The end product was so valuable to me that since then the
two scripts I've written have gone through a storyboarding phase as
part of the rewriting. Screenplays are, after all, just the foundation
for a visual end result and when you start imagining particular images
you begin to see how the script can flow differently to achieve greater
The prospect of actually being the person seen as the shaper of a film
kept me constantly preoccupied. I had never really though about the
kind of film I would make, and would spend hours writing notes, or
reading, or watching videos to study technique. That said, I remained a
sap for sentiment and manipulation. I once sat down to study Jim
Sheridan's 'My Left Foot' and by half way I was just crying my eyes out
and absorbed in the story. Comparisons had been made in story terms
between my script and 'My Life as a Dog' so I watched this a few times.
What struck me in particular is possibly a sweeping comment; there is a
tendency with European film to stand back and let the audience invest
emotion in a scene whereas the American way is to manipulate through
images and music. If this is a valid generalisation, I was certainly
aspiring to the American way. It was simply the way that did what I
most love a film doing - it transported me into the film and suspended
my disbelief. Mind you, woe be to the charlatan who suspends your
disbelief and then leaves you high and dry when you realise you've been
tricked rather than moved.
From very early on I knew that I wanted the film's music to be big -
orchestral. Harry is a little boy, but his emotions and experiences are
galactic in proportion. Music is also the greatest tool for
manipulation in a film - so much so, indeed, that if the music is
bigger than the scene it's carrying then the film collapses.
Another thing I didn't shy away from in my plans was 'homage' - or, in
plain language, stealing. There's a quote about writing which says
'only steal from the best', and in my storyboards I would sometimes
note a shot as being 'the Jaws shot', 'the ET shot', 'the Haunting
shot' and so on.
Another point I believed (when I came across it in a book) was that the
way you started a film set your audience up to either relax or have
reservations. If I could start the film with confidence and strength,
the audience should feel they are in safe hands and start opening up to
the film. Manipulation was my shameless goal in directing the film, and
the kick for touch of 'coverage' (shoot every scene from at least five
angles for the editor) was the familiar voice I was going to try
ignoring. No matter what film you look at, a scene is a scene and it's
the director's choice of shots within it that reveal his or her gift as
a manipulator of cinema and audience. If I began this chapter by saying
my role in the making of the film was navigator, I must add that the
most honest credit on the screen would be manipulator.
I was at all times open about my insecurities and looked to others for
advise. I would have dearly loved to have an experienced film maker
read the script and sit down with me for even a day to go over the
points that he or she reacted to and felt I should watch out for. I
tried on a few occasions to reach John Boorman for this but he was at
first busy and then, sadly, in the midst of a bereavement. I could turn
to friends for help, however, and would take notes after conversations
Conor McAnally is a TV director and producer. I first met him in RTE
when he was making the transition from being a TV presenter, and while
we never worked together I always liked and admired him. In the late
eighties, while heading his successful TV company Green Apple he worked
tirelessly to try and generate union and film maker agreements that
would later be revived as the Film Action Plan. Conor had moved to
London however, and on one trip I stayed with himself and his
wife Kay. Talking through my anxieties about directing, Conor offered
various bits of advice from his years of experience. One thing he said
was repeated to me time and time again by others - I had to learn to
trust my instincts. He talked about the constant pull between making
sure you have enough shots to cover a scene versus putting your own
stamp on the scene. He recommended having each day's shooting set
out in a way that prioritised shots so that I could balance the two
needs. He also warned of the danger of sacrificing performance for
set-ups and not getting locked in to a momentum which resulted in great
shots but poor acting. He said that the director creates the energy on
the set and people tend to work to his pace and temperament.
I met up with Michael Monaghan too. Michael, as I mentioned earlier,
had dragged me back to writing in the early eighties. With his years of
experience as TV producer and department head he had a sublime and
witty overview of the task ahead of me. He said that I had to be in
control and make that clear to people. He also offered on intriguing
piece of advice about working with actors - that being my biggest
weakness. Michael said that actors are helped by specifics - by giving
them a particular prop to connect with their character (Uncle Tony's
goggles and helmet, for instance) and suggesting specific things to do.
I had been invited to talk about film editing at a training course in
Film Base and was sharing the 'podium' that evening with Jean Skinner
who has amassed a wealth of knowledge as continuity assistant. As she
spoke about her adventures I sat mesmerised and I later sent her the
script and asked her if she had any comments. Kindly, Jean agreed to
meet me and I visited her at home. Of the many things we talked about -
and much of what Jean said consisted of great anecdotes that would make
a fascinating book - I wound up jotting down a list of chief points.
Jean above all else urged the value of communicating and said there was
nothing worse than a set where factions or people weren't talking to
each other. She spoke about 'casting' the crew and making sure a good
mix was being created on the team. She said that the cast and crew -
particularly on a low budget film - needed pampering to compensate for
reduced income. She advised being very supportive of the cast and said
I should praise them often.
I met Gerry Stembridge, who at that stage was nearing the end of the
edit of 'Guiltrip' and we talked about the phenomenon of making your
first feature film. He was cheerful as always and full of humour about
the experience. Talking about working with actors, I mentioned what
Michael Monaghan had said about offering something specific as a
starting point with the character - for example in terms of the goggles
and helmet with uncle tony Gerry said also be ready for the actor
asking why - you don't need an earth shattering reason - but have a
reason for the character having that touch. He also warned against
constricting actors with storyboarding. He warned against being seduced
into wasting time on shots you don't truly believe you want - such
shots must always be at the bottom of the queue. Like Conor, Gerry
talked about prioritising the shots you want each day and going through
them that way.
He supported the notion of being inclusive about the script and
welcoming suggestions. He had few days rehearsal, but had written the
script around the cast in the first place. Not long before the start of
filming, he gathered the HODs and some others at his house and read the
script to them. This he found helpful from his own point of view, and
led to some input but above all an opportunity for clarification.
As we parted I asked him - "what would you want someone to say to you
if you were about to make your first feature film?" - his response was
"HOLD ON', by which he elaborated that as all those people talk to you
about this and that on the set, you must hold on to the heart of your
story and trust that alone. Hold on to the story - remember the time
when you wrote this or that on the page. Remember why you did it. The
story is about something. You wrote those words for a reason.
One evening in the Irish Film Centre I bumped into Tiernan McBride, who
I hadn't seen in a while. Tiernan, I knew, was being a great help
in supporting the film with the Film Action Plan group. As one of
Ireland's most experienced film maker's, he was also a man I gladly
took advice from about directing. One piece of advice he gave didn't
sink in at the time (as you'll read later). Tiernan warned against
over-rehearsing the children for fear of losing their spontaneity. He
also recommended that I make sure not to do any very demanding scenes
in the early days of the shoot, and said that the First Assistant
Director on a film was so important the role should almost be
auditioned. He recommended Martha O'Neill for the job, but as I found
out later Martha was unavailable. That evening, as he wished me luck,
was the last time I saw Tiernan. A few months later he died suddenly -
a great loss.
Marina and I met Clare Duignan, head of the Independent Production Unit
of RTE. As they were backing the film they wanted to talk about the
script and also, I discovered, my ability to direct a film. Clare
confessed her reservations, among them my lack of experience with
actors. She also feared I might be too soft to be a director. The best
I could offer as reassurance was that I would keep in open
communication every step of the way and be willing to accept advice and
criticism. At heart though Clare was delighted for me and excited to
see me face this adventure.
I met Hugh O'Conor for the first time in late April, shortly after the
call had come through at the meeting in London. I was very nervous
about meeting him - I am generally in awe of the acting craft and very
conscious of my inexperience in working with them. Hugh was funny and
one thing above all else - sane. Here was a young man who had reached
fame at the age of nine in the film 'Lamb' and had gone on through the
years with a very clear perspective on what he wanted to do with his
life. He turned down lucrative work so that he could continue his
studies through to the Trinity College Drama degree, and he was hugely
supportive of the Irish film industry. At the end of the meeting we
headed off joking about the fact that 'his people and my people' would
want to know how things went between us. Sure enough, I got a call from
Jo Manuel not long after wanting to know how all had gone and in time
she had word back from Hugh's agent saying that our first meeting had
been a success.
When I met Hugh a month later we talked through his role a little more.
Again I got the message that my role was to be the source of clarity. I
had to know where I was going and what I wanted. It was exciting to
realise that he has already worked through the script and had many of
the lines. I caught glimpses of him in the part, and he was full of
Film making is, of course, a team effort and from early in 1995 that
team began taking shape. Around February of 1995 Kate Lennon, who had
worked with us on a draft budget and been a terrific help, decided that
now with a second child she couldn't take on the task of line producing
the film. The search began for an alternative, and it was then Marina
introduced me to the tower of strength in the making of the film -
Noelette Buckley. Noelette had just finished line producing Gerry
Stembridge's 'Guiltrip' and was what you might call a hot property. I
was advised by Jo that if I could get Noelette on the project it would
be great for us, but Noelette was tired and considering taking a break
for a while. Noelette is a no nonsense woman with endless commitment,
and when, after a weekend of deliberation, she came back saying she
would work on the film I was delighted. She immediately set to work on
the budget and looking at the draft schedule I had drawn up.
The other major consideration at that time was a production designer
and my friend Martin Mahon urged me to choose Tom Conroy. I had met Tom
once before when he was production designer on Bob Quinn's 'Budawanny'
which I edited. Tom was based in London but sent me tapes of his work.
When we met we renewed acquaintance and it seemed to me that he was the
perfect choice. Right from the beginning Tom launched himself into the
project - long before there was money to pay him or even a budget in
place. He was keen to look at the storyboarding I'd done and view films
that we could consider mutual points of reference. Harry's nightmare
scene was the source of an odd coincidence. Over Christmas I had taped
a screening of the brilliant Robert Wise film 'The Haunting' which has
a menacing supernatural presence conveyed only in sound and at one
stage a bulging door. I showed this to Tom as an example of what I was
trying to achieve, and he was amazed to realise that a man who had
lectured him in the National Film School in London had been the
production designer on the film! Tom also encouraged me to root into
the old family photographs I had stored after my mother's death to give
him images to work from. This proved to be a great help to us both and
was a vital element in establishing the look of the film. I always had
a sense that the 'look' of the film would be my weakest link and by
finding Tom I found someone who could lift that aspect beyond my
limitations - and as it turned out even beyond the limitations of the
Another department head choice was one of the most difficult decisions
I had to make in the entire process of making the film. I had a long
friendship with a cameraman who I had felt would be the natural choice
for director of photography. Talking with him a few times with the
script, I sensed that the nature of our friendship - where he had
tended to be the dominant one and I the one who listened and agreed -
was spilling dangerously over into discussions about how the film would
be made. I said this to him and said we would start over with an
acceptance on his part that I was the boss and if I really wanted
something a particular way then it would be so. This agreed, we began
talking through storyboards and again he was making comments about the
look and the script which I didn't like but he felt strongly about.
Perhaps it was cowardice on my part, but after a lot of thought I went
to his home, sat down, and told him I felt we couldn't work together. I
still feel bad about it. But I also feel it was the right decision. It
was an act of professional ruthlessness, but if I was going to screw up
in the making of my first feature then the screw up was going to be all
mine and not the shared result of a power struggle. Seamus Deasy was
the man I chose as cinematographer, and in dealing with him right from
the beginning he was open to my ideas and eager to make the film. The
bottom line, perhaps, was that there was no agenda between he and I.
With Seamus on board the film was becoming the creative 'god child' of
Bob Quinn as Seamus had shot Budawanny. He had also filmed 'The End of
the World Man', the late Bill Miskelly's children's feature film.
Seamus had worked twice on dramas with John Boorman and told me that on
the film 'Two Nudes Bathing' Boorman had the entire film shotlisted for
each day's filming and this document was given to all the crew. Hearing
that, I was relieved to know I wasn't the only control freak in the
Acknowledging that my wish for a lot of shots and a lot of camera
movement had to be tempered with a schedule which wouldn't over-work
the child cast, Seamus planned on working as much as possible with
available light. Having heard stories of cinematographers who could
take half a day to light a set this was a great relief. For budgetary
reasons we were shooting on Super 16mm format to blow up the final cut
to 35mm. This put further constrictions on Shay - but nothing phases
him. Just talking to him made me feel more relaxed in my role.
As mentioned before, I was certain that I wanted a big soundtrack for
the film. It was one are where I felt other Irish film makers had shown
too much restraint, and yet it was an area which I knew could sweep the
audience into the world of Harry. In recent years I've developed a
habit of building up a sound tape of music pieces while I'm developing
an idea, and when I was scripting THE BOY FROM MERCURY I listened
constantly to a tape which included extracts from 'Cinema Paradiso',
'Holsts' Planet Suite', and a Michael O'Suilleabhan album called
'flowan....'. I made some queries about Michael composing the music for
the film in fact, but never managed to contact him. While my
deliberations about a composer were going on, I started getting
besieged by a man whose enthusiasm borders on the manic. Stephen McKeon
had just completed the music for Cathal Black's 'Korea' and he sent
this to me along with a tape with samples of his compositions. While he
was eager to meet, I was being advised about other people worth trying
and I was leaving my options open as this of all choices was probably
the lowest down the list of priorities. While I thought Stephen's work
on 'Korea' was fine (but suffering, in my opinion, from the restraint
that I didn't want) I listened to his sample tape and something came
along which sold me on Stephen then and there. It was like the moment
you know you've fallen in love with someone. What Stephen had on his
tape was a huge orchestral theme. It was such an unashamedly big and
glorious score, it was worthy of a John Ford panorama and evoked all
those great images of excitement as the cowboys team up to ride into
the desert or gather up the cowherd. When Stephen and I met we
approached the task of how the music would evolve by looking for a
shared language. I referred him to films I liked and vice versa. I
played him the tape I'd been listening to while writing the script and
we exchanged views on that. One area of concern for me was the fact
that as an editor I always loved working with music and as I had such
strong opinions about the sound I wanted Stephen had to be ready for
some straight and perhaps disagreeable reactions from me. Once we
established how we would work together Stephen dealt with Noelette to
make an orchestral score achievable on our limited budget. But Stephen
was the man for the film - and indeed his western score is used when
Harry meets Sean and they play cowboys and indians.
The biggest and most difficult choice for the film was the editor. I
had written this script and would direct it. I co-owned the production
company. The story was semi-autobiographical. I had been a film editor
for fifteen years. People were relieved when I said it would be too
much if I also cut the film - but I knew enough about editing to
realise I could bring in a puppet editor and cut the film in all but
name. I was one of the more experienced editors in Ireland, and felt
that no one here was really so far ahead of me as to be able to keep me
in my rightful place in the cutting room. For that reason I had warned
everyone - including the Film Board from as far back as the submission
for production funding - that I would be looking abroad for an editor.
The search began with Jo approaching agents in England and sending me
lists but what I was hoping for seemed impossible - an editor of vast
experience willing to work on a small feature film for a limited amount
of money. That story took some time to unfold.
In mid May the next watermark was reached. With a budget, a schedule,
some crew and the makings of full financing, we were ready to face the
completion bond company. No investors will put money in a film over a
million pound budget without the safety net of a company which
guarantees the film will see the light of day. Through Jo, we were
dealing with David Wilder of Film Finances and there was a meeting at
which he would decide whether or not the company would give a bond to
our production. The key deciding fact for him would be that we were a
sound bunch who knew what we were doing and how we would do it. Above
all at this stage, he would want to know whether or not I seemed like
someone who could direct a film.
Jo came over for the meeting which was held in the Irish Film Centre.
Present with us were Marina and Noelette. I'll always remember that as
each of the women sat down they placed their mobile phones on the table
- it seemed like saloon poker scene for the Nineties. David - who was
suffering from a stomach bug - said he liked the script. He also made
it clear that completion bonds for such small films were really only
given to support the industry and that if a small film did fail and
Film Finances were forced to step in it could damage that service for
aspiring film makers to come. He went through the script, budget and
schedule and made several points which I jotted down. These points
included; Be wary of Max the dog and expectations of him, rehearse the
children thoroughly, cast even the schoolroom children and note that in
previous experience classroom scenes run over schedule. He was glad to
see that I had storyboarded the film but noted ruefully that he had
seen many directors do the same and then change their minds once they
got on set.
Noelette, we all agreed, was the one who clinched David's support. She
had already worked with David on 'Guiltrip' so he knew she could keep a
film on budget. Her clarity put David at ease and as the meeting drew
to a close he indicated that if his points were taken on board he could
see no reason why a completion bond wouldn't be provided. As were were
wrapping up David became more chatty and asked me where I got the idea
of a story about a boy who believes he's from another planet. I told
him the story was largely autobiographical - and his face dropped.
Later, I heard through Jo that David was somewhat rattled by the idea
of underwriting a film directed by someone who believed he was an
Soon after this I met production manager Jo Homewood for the first time
as we gathered to talk about the logistics of making the film. I met
her with Noelette and Marina and at the end of the meeting Jo joked
about the fact that this wasn't art anymore - it was a military
As more and more people gathered around the film I felt terribly
responsible for these people, and knew that while we all had to treat
the film as happening in reality the deal for the budget wasn't
completely locked off. The greatest scourge of all, and one that
constantly occupied Marina, was the struggle to bank-roll
pre-production. No one wants to put in their money first in case the
film folds, yet if we were to wait for a deal to be signed and sealed
before starting pre-production we wouldn't be able to film until after
the summer holidays by which time the budget would go through the roof
as we'd be filming children during school time. The fear always was
that I was messing with the livelihoods of these people but sense said
that this far down the line the film had to happen. On May 22nd,
however, with Marina, Jo and Sylvaine in Cannes, I received word back
that Canal Plus were committing œ450,000 to the film and while this
still left a shortfall there seemed to be enough other nibbles out
there to believe the film could be deemed in a 'go' situation. Another
breakthrough came a few days later with a call from Jo to say that the
word back through Pete Postlethwaite's agent was that he wanted to play
Brendan Gunn is a dialogue coach from Belfast I originally met through
the film makers Mike Hewitt and Diarmuid Lavery when editing for them
in 1988. Of the many films he'd worked on, a story he told me about
'Into the West' had made a deep impression. Apparently both children
roles had been cast in this film long before the deal had been locked
off, and Brendan had been working with the two boys on dialogue for
some time. When the film was weeks away from shooting a change of
line-up brought Mike Newell in as director. He took one look at the boy
cast in the younger role and said he was wrong. Brendan was present
when the young boy was told the news and said it was harrowing to see
how upset the boy was. This was something I swore wouldn't happen on my
project and so I had been very slow about trying to cast a film which
in fact would stand or fall on the performance of one eight year old.
As filming started to become a reality, casting Harry became a matter
of concern. Indeed, more than once I woke in the middle of the night in
a cold sweat thinking that maybe I was walking myself into a nightmare
situation by wanting to direct an unmakeable film.
The first approach was to contact youth drama groups and schools. I
also talked to actor and film maker Vinny Murphy who had been working
with young people in Tallaght and he recommended a group I could make
contact with. There was also one boy I knew who had at least the
lineage to be a fine performer - eight year old Johnny Lambert who was
the son of Paula and grandson of puppeteer Eugene Lambert. I visited
the Jobstown Drama Group one Sunday and they very kindly devoted what
would have been one of their routine sessions to performing some work
for me. In particular I had brought along the poem I wanted to use in
the script - Padraic Colum's "The Old Woman of the Road" - and I was
transported back to my school days as I listened to those true
Dublin voices rattled out the words.
The first real set of auditions took place in late May. We booked time
in a small studio in Ringsend called The Courtyard and various drama
schools brought along boys aged eight to eleven. In the waiting
area Joanne Jordan took Polaroids of the children and took details of
their height and so on. In the studio, a cameraman recorded the ten
minute chats while I took notes and talked to the boys. I wasn't sure
what to talk about - I just wanted a sense of the personalities. I also
was asking Joanne to keep note of how the boys behaved while waiting
because film making can be boring and children hate to be bored. I saw
thirty five boys that day. The most exciting part was the realisation
that I was right in my sense that the cast should be as young as the
characters in the script. There's a magic in the faces of boys around
8/9 that is gone by the age of 11/12. Johnny Lambert shone through the
auditions, as did the Jobstown gang. At a push, I could identify a
Harry, a Sean and a Mucker plus some classroom kids including some with
lines. But it was early days yet.
When Jo Manuel saw the tape she came back with an astute response - I
needed a casting director. I had already been approached by Gillian
Reynolds, and she set to work scouring Dublin for all groups she could
find - even school drama classes. By the end of it all, Gillian
reckoned she had seen nearly eight hundred boys.
In early June I got a call from Jo saying that Billie Whitelaw loved
the script and would do the film. The whoops of delight rang through
the house. I called Tom, Hugh, Seamus and others to spread the word.
Rachel dashed out and bought us a bottle of wine. I was elated and
stunned. I was going to be writer and director working with Billie
Whitelaw. The last Dubliner to do that was Samuel Beckett. This is
happening to me. I shouted 'thank you' at the ceiling after the phone
call, then started to get all the more nervous about directing actors.
A few days later picked up the Irish Times to read the first bit of
publicity about the film - Pete Postlethwaite starring and shooting to
begin July 31st. I went down to Marina and she broke the news that we
needed to put the start date back a week. Then Jo called to say that
Pete had pulled out. Much as he wanted to, his availability just
couldn't fit in with our schedule. Names flew back and forward for
Uncle Tony, with a shortlist of Tom Courtenay, Tom Conti, Jim Sheridan
and Donal McCann. Tom Courtenay, however, had already been queried and
found unavailable for the dates. By the end of the day, with Jo
contacting Overseas Sales Group, the deal was set for them to come in
with the rest of the funding if we could get Tom Conti or his
equivalent. I couldn't imagine Tom Conti as Uncle Tony, and as a script
was being couriered to him I said a secret prayer he'd turn it down or
On the positive side, Sean McGinley came back saying he wanted to play
Dowdall. So in one day the cast was changing to Billie Whitelaw, Hugh
O'Conor, Tom Conti and Sean McGinley and start of filming was set for
August 7th. The day was topped with a call in from Louise Cullen of
Animal Magic saying she believed she had found Max. I went home with my
head spinning, thinking about Tom Conti's intelligent eyes, hair style,
A day trip to London soon followed. Firstly, I met Jo with David
Winlow, an agent for Overseas Film Group. Basically, his remit was to
establish that all was sound and that I wasn't a raving lunatic about
to blow the investment on a cocaine holiday for one or whatever. It was
an amiable chat which seemed to establish that all was well and that
the deal would be in order. He was going to the states the following
week and said he would recommend that the deal. He mentioned that the
people in the States liked 'Splice of Life' - bless them.
And then there was Billie.
Jo drove me there - to Byron's Restaurant in Hampstead. As soon as we
sat down Billie said this story must be autobiographical and I
acknowledged this - mentioning some elements of truth including the
scar on my hand from the time when I wanted to show off how to be shot
and fell off a wall landing on glass. Then Billie said "I'm too old for
this part". I nearly passed out. I wasn't sure if she was looking for a
way out of the film or expressing a genuine concern. She talked about
the lines on her face and how the camera would highlight them, and I
scrambled with words around my own background and the hardships and my
own mother being forty six when I was born. Jo had quit the scene as I
floundered, and all I really wanted to do was say "Billie you are
beautiful and strong and perfect". But I was awestruck again and
tongue tied. I managed to scramble on to Hugh O'Conor and the fact that
I could offer him music of the day and some photographs. Billie said
she'd love to see photographs and so I showed her those I was carrying
with me. It helped her greatly to see Mam, and helped her get a clearer
fix on the character she would play. She also expressed fears about
accent - saying she had worked with Beckett on "All That Fall" but had
really only done a general purpose accent as opposed to a distinct one.
I told her that Brendan Gunn would be there for her and she wasn't sure
that such technical advice would be a help. Then I confessed an idea
I'd had before of giving her a copy of my tape talking to my sisters
Brigid and Ethel about Mam - Brigid's voice is so perfect. Billie was
eager to get that tape.
Our meeting turned into shades of the confessional. I expressed my
fears about my lack of knowledge of working with actors, and she
assured me that she is afraid all the time. We agree that we will be
open with each other. Her body is something she works with, and so she
is open to talking about how the hair will be done, or her make-up, or
how lighting tests can establish how she'll come across on film. She is
open to exploring with me - even if she feels I'm wrong - but equally
will let me know if she feels I'm going the wrong way. She flatteringly
said that script had its own fragility and shouldn't be
intellectualised or tampered with - she wants to treat the character of
the mother gently. By the end of it all I felt she was open to
embracing the story and the character and I was delighted.
Towards the end of our time together, she talked about "Footfalls" and
"Eh Joe" - performing pieces from both and mesmerising me.
Talking about 'Footfalls' she coiled her arms as she described this
woman as a dinosaur fading away and I could see how it would be. She
did the voice from Eh Joe, talking about how Beckett had her reduce the
inflection to nothing until that voice became his rhythm. My sense of
her is as someone whose art is the willingness to be raw for others so
that their work can flow through her. At the end when we stood up to
leave the restaurant I towered over her. "And I'm tiny - only five foot
one," she groaned. But she's so fantastic. For all my fears, I felt
safe working with someone who at the end of the day was open to
rehearse, to absorb, to listen, to interpret, and to breathe life into
the role. We were trading bits of each others' lives in this process -
her own experience of losing her father when she was very young but not
being included in the mourning. Her understanding of hardship and
escape into fantasy. Her professionalism. In a sense which will most
likely be unstated we would act as both each others' parents and
children. As director I'd take care of her while she'd watch out for my
inadequacies. As actress she'd come with the weight of her vast
experience while seeking my guidance and care in the making of the
As full pre-production approached my days were filled more and more
with communication. Calls, meetings, and my obsessive habit of writing
lists and striking off details dealt with. At this stage I finally got
the hint from Noelette that I should be pacing myself - I mentioned I
was thinking of going away for a few days with Rachel and Noelette was
only short of offering to pay for the break. Wanting to do things
right, I had to learn to delegate and not feel I was a one man
band. Around this time my younger son Steve, living with his Mam
in the States, was coming home for his annual summer holiday. I
normally try to spend as much time with him as possible, but had warned
him that this time around he'd be seeing me busier than I'd ever been
before. My wish to spend time with him, though, at least tempered
my endless fussing.
Noelette and Marina were soldiering through a mountain of problems.
That summer was turning into the greatest boom ever for film making in
Ireland, and this meant that resources were scarce. Worse still, with a
sense that there would be another call for work on the horizon crew
were unwilling to do the deals we needed to stay within our small
budget. Ardmore Studios was booked solid so we had to try finding
another space, and there was even difficulty finding a base for the
production office. The Communication Centre in Booterstown finally
became our home, and when I first visited it all there was to see was a
huge empty room with phone sockets and grey carpet.
Around this time the question friends were most likely to ask was if I
felt stressed. I didn't. Exhilarated, totally absorbed and preoccupied,
but not stressed. There's a scene in 'The Godfather' I often think of.
Michael has gone to visit his father in hospital after the failed
assassination. The place is deserted - ready for a hit to complete the
murder. A young man comes along to pay his respects, and Michael has
him stand outside so the two look like heavies protecting the place.
The young man is terrified, and can't even light his cigarette. Michael
lights the cigarette for him, and looks at his own hand - rock steady.
Michael can do this. I felt the very same way as filming approached. I
was doing what I wanted to do. I was happy to be a resource and let all
who needed to do so come and draw from me what they need. I was so so
glad I did all the storyboarding and all the drafts and all the
schedules and all the learning - it meant that I could offer clear
answers. Aware that as the director I would become the mood of the
film, I was content to take on any problems and challenges as cast and
crew gathered to turn this story - so close to me - into what I knew
from my years as an editor would be presented at the end of the day as
'my' film rather than 'our' film. If people were going to work to make
my dream come true, the least I could do was be there for them with a
generous heart and no childish behaviour.
One thing that had always worried me about being a film director was
the need for stamina. I had never really worked for a long time under
sustained pressure and feared that one day I'd just fold up and fall
asleep for a week. I was on a regime of vitamins and relatively clean
living (having given up smoking but not entirely given up drinking) but
went to a doctor for advice about how this old dog could suit the long
road. I had also started shifting my body clock, rising at seven
in the morning and going to bed by eleven to get in tune with the
coming regime of the shoot. In the event, though, I think the biggest
source of energy was the delight and challenge in the work. One thing I
found difficult (and became a real burden by the end of the shoot) was
the constant contact with other people. As an editor and writer I'd
grown accustomed to a sparsely populated life, but now I was constantly
talking to people and dealing with them. The person who got the worst
of this was Rachel, who was there at the end of every day when she
wanted to talk but I just wanted to soak in thought and solitude. We
worked things out with some difficulty, but the fact that my brain felt
full to the brim did nothing for our relationship.
A definite time of stress occurred one fateful Saturday when, in a
massive blunder I probably had to make anyway, I arranged for a day of
auditions working with all the children I had short-listed and Gillian
wanted me to see. The venue was a hall attached to the Lansdowne
Road Rugby Club. As I arrived the children were arriving with their
parents who, after a brief chat from me, left and were due to return at
five that afternoon. The plan was that Seamus Deasy would use a
camcorder while I worked with the boys who had already received
excerpts of the script to learn. My long time friend actor Liam
Heffernan would come along to help me work with the group. Gillian
would be there to help with individual auditions. But none of this
prepared me for the stark reality of having some fifty boys in one
place for a day. It was sheer hell. The day begun with what I believed
to be a necessary bit of ice-breaking. We played a few games to set the
boys at ease - but the games worked only too well. At one point I
jokingly said everyone should rush Shay and before I knew it he was
under a mound of laughing boys who had to be dragged away. Moving
beyond the exercises to some performing, Shay recorded as the boys sat
as if in class and recited the poem. No matter what I said, many of
them grinned at the camera as it passed them by. When we moved on to
having pairs I'd selected act out scenes between Harry and Sean, the
performances ranged between the good and the not so good. But after a
few hours the boys were hungry and let us know so by chanting for food.
When the food finally arrived they tucked in so fast I was left with a
handful of chips to eat. While sitting with Shay at lunchtime we were
approached by a boy who had lost a baby tooth in the course of the
morning. He demonstrated with pride his neat trick, dunking a chip into
his open gum as if dunking it in ketchup and then swallowing the chip.
In the afternoon matters deteriorated. I was to see boys selected by
Gillian while outside Liam and Joanne were struggling to keep some
semblance of control over the horde. Fortunately, a ball had been found
which led to a few minor injuries but at least a focus of sorts to
prevent boys from climbing walls, trying to invade the Lansdowne pitch,
and even trying to run away. Joanne was busy compiling a black
list of the boys who were uncontrollable. Sadly this included some that
Liam and I thought had a lot of potential. By late in the afternoon I
had a bursting headache and felt like an absolute idiot. When the last
of the boys were collected I went to the pub with my unfortunate crew
and sat in misery as they drank. It was the first time I realised just
how lucky I was to have Shay. He was sitting there smiling and
unperturbed by what had gone before. I went home and wrote notes about
the day, criticising myself and realising that for the days of filming
which would involve a lot of children we might have to hire in cattle
prods and stun guns.
The following Monday was the first formal day of preproduction. At that
stage the team consisted of Tom Conroy and his gathering crew plus Jo
Homewood, Noelette, and Joanne. I was at home that morning as my son
Steve was with us and while I busied myself with work and phone calls I
was approached by Rachel. She had just bought a home pregnancy test.
The result of the test was positive. I was numbed by the news. My
operation had been testament to the fact that we wanted a child. But
now? I was delighted yes. But couldn't think clearly about it. Rachel
said that to be safe, since sometimes the test might give the wrong
result, she would try again in a few days. But the fact was that Rachel
felt pregnant and the test a few days later would prove her right. Mind
you, our future bundle of joy had another surprise in store for us in
terms of timing. While the news was a source of great excitement, I
decided not to tell anyone on the film. I had become increasingly aware
of the fact that the director is someone that people tiptoe around and
so if news of this added pressure came out I might get treated even
more delicately and thereby not receive all the information I needed to
go about my work.
Word soon came back that Tom Conti had passed on Uncle Tony and I
breathed a sigh of relief. Better still was the news that Tom Courtenay
had become available and the script was on its way to him. I sent out
positive vibes and prayers. A few days later I got a call from Jo
saying Tom had read the script and wanted to talk to me. She gave me
his number and I braced myself for what lay ahead. I really wanted him
for the part, but still had my fear of actors. When I phoned Tom had
been watering his plants. He talked glowingly of the script and Uncle
Tony's idiosyncratic speech. "I have one question," he said 'what does
'the job is oxo' mean?". I started blabbing. I explained how Dublin
language played with words. I explained about Oxo being a gravy and all
other kinds of strangled things. I mentioned that the expression means
'everything is alright' and he cut in. "Ah, you've answered my
question". I felt like a gobshite. Tom wanted to do the part and said
the last hurdle was to show the script to his wife Isabella who had
final say on such matters. I said I really wanted him for the film and
when I hung up I started praying again.
Work was gathering momentum. Of the six weeks of prep, the first was to
be spent with an edit of the Flash Gordon footage plus an edit of the
casting tape, followed by time shown locations, followed by time with
Tom Conroy and his gang, followed by a trip to London to talk to
editors, followed by more auditions, all within the context of being
across the start up in the Communications Centre of the Mercury
production machine. Luke Johnson had started work with us as locations
manager. Luke is a rugged young man who would later gain the nickname
While a first assistant director hadn't been found, everyone was
recommending Brendan Geraghty. Brendan had been first AD for Gerry
Stembridge but lived in Spain and was naturally reluctant to leave
home. He was considering the job and I phoned him to talk through how
we might work together. His concern - which I shared - was that a film
with a lot of children involved couldn't be a tense shoot. First ADs,
however, are often known by their bark and that wasn't his approach.
Talking it through, I think that Brendan believed that I had some sense
of what I was at and that we were sufficiently like-minded to be able
to work together, and he finally came back with the decision to do the
And the other considerations were checked off one by one. I had been
viewing TV programmes of the Sixties from the BBC archive looking for
material watched during the film. I was thrilled to come across a play
called 'Tuppence in the Gods' which had been written by an old friend
and mentor from my RTE days, Michael Voysey. I naturally seized on the
chance to include it in the film. There was also a great excerpt from
"What's my Line" and, under the category of the boring programme Paul
watches while Sarah devotes her time to Harry, a staggeringly mind
numbing interview with the Danish ombudsman. It was very difficult to
get rights for the songs of the era for the film. After much toing and
froing, however, a deal was struck with EMI for thirty seconds of The
Shadows' Apache, and a minute of Johnny Kidd's Shakin All Over.
On one long day in London I met four editors - none of whom I
felt really fitted what I needed - and finally Tom Courtenay - who was
fantastic. The script had been approved by Isabella and he was already
getting into the part of Uncle Tony. Jo and I met Tom for a meal and I
sat chatting with this ma that I had watched in so many great role - my
own favourite being that of Billy Liar. Tom has been twice nominated
for an Oscar but it would seem his love of performance took first
priority over career moves in the film industry and so he had slipped
out of view from cinema audiences for years at a time. He had recently
been in Dublin, however, playing Quilp in a Disney TV production of
Dicken's 'The Old Curiosity Shop'. At the end of the evening as we bade
goodbye I walked along feeling immensely proud that I'd written
something that he'd actually want to perform.
Later, when Jo was driving me back to my hotel, I said "I've something
to tell you'. Jo's immediate response was "Rachel is pregnant". Jo said
that films bring babies - and indeed her own daughter Cleo was born
right at the start of her making 'Widow's Peak. We agreed to keep the
Sean McGinley, meanwhile, had run into difficulties with availability
with the shift in the film's schedule. I immediately thought of Ian
McElhinney and when he read the script he agreed. I had originally
shied away from Ian because he's actually quite similar in appearance
to the Christian Brother who had abused me as a child, but of course
this was not for him to know. Ian was in Dublin doing some preparations
for filming in Neil Jordan's 'Michael Collins' and I met him for coffee
at Connolly Station before he took the train home to Belfast. Again he
brought home to me the fact that actors are people who seek for ways to
bring dimensions and life to what is on paper.
To my great shock, I was informed that Billie Whitelaw was not going to
be mother. Billie was promoting her book about working with Beckett,
and it turned out that there were dates which clashed and couldn't be
budged. Again, there was a flurry of activity back and forth between Jo
and I as lists of names were suggested. A name that leapt out was Rita
Tushingham - a woman who had only recently returned to England after
years living in Canada. The script went to her, and I carried on
with work while hoping that this would work out.
I had a second casting session with Gillian Reynolds and we concluded
with a short list of four Seans, three Muckers, and seven Harrys. It
was a hugely important move on Jo Manuel's part to say we should get a
casting director, because I had been walking myself into big trouble.
As pre-production gathered momentum, we were also locking off
locations. The national school and an old suburban cinema in Whitehall
both fitted the bill of our needs happily. In the school, there was a
particular classroom which was double length with a sliding partition
dividing the two rooms. I've no idea how this room came about, but it
was perfect for us as it meant that the cast and crew wouldn't be
crammed into a real classroom but instead would have the room to work
from one room when shooting up the classroom and work from the other
when shooting down the classroom. One major problem loomed, however.
From Tom Conroy's plans it became clear that the 18 foot
warehouse we were planning on using as our studio would not work in
terms of needs for the starry sky and the night shots with roofs in the
background and so on. The search began for a much higher space, but
with so much filming going on in Dublin real worries were aired about
achieving some of the shots I had planned.
Through all this I grew accustomed to being put on the spot to make
decisions, and as far as I can make out no one was frustrated by any
vagueness on my part. By a month before filming we confirmed a set of
locations for the start of filming, Luke Johnson was still searching
for the simple but elusive block of plain corporation houses we needed.
Most of these houses had been altered over the years by the addition of
driveways or porches or - most horrific - mock brick fronts.t
On Monday July 10th I screen tested the short list for Harry, Sean and
Mucker. Sean O'Flanagain walked away with the role of Sean, and the
Harry search became a situation where I plumbed very strongly for James
Hickey while Gillian went for another boy. Later I went out with Tom to
a cul-de-sac he had found in Drimnagh and much to his joy we agreed
that this would be the location for Harry's house.
The next I went to London - taking along a VHS of the screen. Jo and I
were looking at the tape when John Victor-Smith arrived and it was love
at first sight. He was just what I need in an editor; a white
haired father figure who was a grand old man of editing. As we were
introduced I was showing the audition tape to Jo and John immediately
responded to the look and sound of James. When we chatted, John also
made some very perceptive points about the script - that the Uncle Tony
pub scene was loose (I had intentionally left it so) and that there was
a discrepancy in the way the fantasy fight was the only time a fantasy
was treated as a separate and different kind of event. The editors I
met later in the day were simply people I had friendly chats with. My
heart was on John or a poor alternative. Jo Manuel, yet again, had been
the source of wise advice. If not for her I would have settled for an
editor from the previous set of meetings and so not have met John.
I went on - through the sweltering heat of the day - to meet Rita
Tushingham. The day was so hot that I sweated my way through my shirt
on the way to her and had to buy another around the corner from her
home and change into it in the shop. I arrived dehydrating, and Rita
took me in and kindly supplied me with some juice. What I hadn't
reckoned on, though it was an obvious and natural thing, was that Rita
would a new kind of mother. She wanted the mother to be strong.
Basically, while Billie looked for the darkness in the mother, Rita saw
her as getting on with life. Rita is a comedic actress and her focus
was on accent and minimal fuss about the complexities of mother. It was
only later that I realised how positive a step this would be and wrote
to encourage her to see the shift that mother makes in letting go of
Harry and in fact having reached a point, as our story begins, of
recognising that she's gotten a bit out of her depth with Harry's
imaginative freedom. When Rita was set for the role, I wound up in the
odd situation that she would be working with Tom again for the first
time since 'Doctor Zhivago'.
There was still some debate over who should play Harry and so I agreed
to a final play-off between James Hickey and the other boy. To make the
'contest' clearer I asked Hugh O'Conor to come in and he kindly agreed.
This final screen test convinced all that James was our
man. As Hugh said, the other boy was playing the part whereas
James simply was the part. James had that particular quality which
might not necessarily work in, say, a stage performance but which as
far as I'm concerned leapt off the screen. I know that what mesmerised
me above all else was his eyes - he has such big, open eyes that view
the world with evocative layers of intelligence, perceptiveness and
As shooting drew near I had all my HODs, almost all of my cast, and was
awaiting word about whether or not we could get the ideal studio venue
- the national basketball arena in Tallaght. Above all, I had the sense
of a wonderful team around me. When we sat down one evening to sum up
the fruits of a long hard search for the right kind of studio space, I
happily thanked Jo Homewood, Noelette, Luke and Tom for their giving
the search its best shot. I keenly felt my responsibility to ensure
that the efforts of all these people ended in a film we could all be
With three weeks to go to the start of shooting I went away for a
hiking weekend in Fermanagh with my son Steve. One day we went for a
long walk (which became longer when we got lost) the literal high point
of which was a heart bursting climb up a hill facing onto Lough Erne.
As we neared the top - with Steve glorying in his fitness by racing
ahead of me - we heard the sound of a car door slam. Our efforts had
brought us to a scenic car park.
I returned from the break away and went to the office to meet
Brendan Geraghty for the first time. The good news was that studio
space was ours and this made Tom happy. Later, however, I was
called to a meeting with Marina, Noelette, Jo Homewood. The topic was
the fact that we were œ40,000 over budget and they wanted to cut back
on special effects. In the end we agreed that I would cut down on the
script and on the scale of shooting so that the vast majority of the
film can be achieved in the five weeks. The only bit sitting apart in
the sixth week would be the grave exploding. It was one of those
mincing meetings where people were trying to be nice with me while at
the same time reducing my vision of the film to parameters. Above all I
sought to save the special effects, and to that end I committed to
cutting pages out of the script and fitting in special effects
pick-ups into the end of shooting days.
The production office had become a hub of activity. Noelette was going
through great difficulties completing the crewing of the film with so
much other filming going on at the time. Jo Homewood and Brendan
Geraghty was working with assistants getting the logistics of endless
considerations about cast, locations and facilities in order. Jo
Homewood kept on at copyright and other deals while revising the
schedule to come up with the optimum to suit all. Tom Conroy;'s
universe was expanding meanwhile with Arnold Fanning, Philip Henderson
and Markus Thonett busily gathering the or building the props that
would fill Harry's world. A very simple item had become major
challenge. When I was a child I had a torch which shone different
colours. I had written this into the script, but no one could find such
a torch. Markus even built a different kind of torch with three
different bulbs for the three colours but I knew it wasn't right and it
also didn't work in camera tests - the white being far brighter than
the green or red. I had just about conceded defeat on finding the right
kind of torch when Philip found one in a junk shop. He had just walked
in and there it was sitting waiting for him.
In the second last week of preproduction David Wilder of Film Finances
came over for the final judgment on the film's state of play. I felt
immensely proud to be there with the team. As his considerations moved
from one department to the next, each head of that area would present
the work. I actually had little to do but watch them and smile. It was
clear that we had our act together and David gave us the all clear. I
was bursting with pride at the sight of the team in action. One element
of the shoot had been the cause of some worry - the fact that the
spaceship would be on a high crane out in the open and therefore in
danger of swaying in the wind. Later, in a meeting called by Jo Manuel,
I committed to shooting the spaceship sequence in studio instead so
that it we wouldn't be at the mercy of weather.
Less than two weeks before the start of shooting I brought Steve to the
airport and immediately went back to Gillian's for Mucker auditions. I
found Mucker - a lad named Kevin James - and his two pals. I also did
auditions to find 'Sarah' and of the ten girls I met I was plumbing for
one in particular who was demure and pretty - as I imagined Sarah.
Then, arriving late, in came Joanne Gerard. Joanne was tough, with a
strong Dublin voice. One of her hobbies is taekwondo. She had played
one of the younger sisters in 'The Snapper' and was a bit unhappy about
making the audition because she was missing a chance to see a short
film she had appeared in which was showing in the Galway Film Fleadh
that day. The spin her toughness could put on Sarah struck me as being
perfect and unexpected, so I chose her.
A week before the start of the shoot - and remembering what David
Wilder had said about rehearsing the classroom scenes - I spent a
morning with Ian McElhinney and twenty of the classroom boys. I had
been dreading it, but the filtering process had paid off because the
kids behaved well. Ian offered me advice later about working with the
kids. As usual, James played a stormer. In the course of the morning he
was getting his head around the lines. His reactions are great too, and
he took direction every time.
By the last week of preproduction I had grown accustomed to a life
which consisted of work and sleep. After Steve's departure I devoted
myself totally to the film - while Rachel was suffering from morning
sickness which stretched through the day and into the night. The film
was all I thought about, and my routine of making lists and striking
off details carried on into the evenings at home as I would sit in the
back garden on the warm summer nights and suddenly remember there was
some other item to be checked out. One notion that i think occurred to
me too late was to have a session with Tom Conroy, Seamus Deasy and
costume designer Lorna Mugan to look at the assembled stills and visual
ingredients of the film. In preparation for the meeting Tom had set up
areas around the walls of his office where we could look at stills of
locations, colours and wallpapers he planned on using, plus bits of
material from the costumes Lorna was bringing together. As we talked
through scenes simple but vital points cropped up to my regret later a
point that didn't arise was that Sean would be wearing red braces on
his white shirt the time he is 'shot' and bleeds. It was to prove a
grading problem later to separate the blood on his shirt from the red
of the braces.
I also called a meeting between myself, Brendan, Jo Homewood and
Noelette because of a worry I had about the schedule. It allowed for
only one day's filming for the scenes on the kitchenette roof - yet
this was the biggest use of set in the film and involved some key
work. The strictly private end result was that I could have my
extra day on the roof if I handle the shoot right and we move along
without breaking the bank of the contingency fund.
With filming approaching I took another day to rehearse with James,
Sean and Kevin. From ten to 11.45 we worked through text, then took a
break. From twelve to near one we worked through action and ideas about
camera movement and then broke for a decent lunch. Then at two we
started again and went over some other things. With ten minutes to go
before I had to leave I wanted to work again through what would be the
first scene we shoot - and James started crying saying he didn't want
to do the scene again. We talked about it but I was stunned, trying to
be calm but absolutely terrified. I knew well that he would have to
work long days but above all would have to repeat his work over and
over. There was no way I could countenance his being able to limit the
number of takes or the number of angles. He had to be willing and able
to repeat again and again. The end result of my thoughts about the
whole thing was that I had to make his work play as much as possible. I
talked afterwards with his granny, June, and she was calm about it all.
But I knew I was in deep trouble if I had cast a kid who didn't want to
do things many times. Talking afterwards with Brendan Geraghty about
the problem, he said that Ciaran Fitzgerald on "Into the West" just
really wanted to make the film so he worked and worked. Terrified
thoughts ran through my head. Did I establish just how motivated James
was? What if he was just in love with the idea of being Harry and being
in a film but didn't want to do the slog involved? I had to try and
reach him - connect with him. First time I went out to his house he
looked away from his Mam when she took over conversations. As I was
leaving the rehearsal room I went back up and Gillian was working with
the children. All was well, but James wouldn't look at me. I had to
build a bond with him. I had to support him.
With the shoot nearing I met Seamus, Tom and we viewed film tests to
establish things about the stars, the cinema footage and so on. Seamus,
in consultation with John Boorman, had decided on the way to do the
starry sky while keeping the stars and the action in the same
focus. This involved getting a 'ghost glass' - a sheet of optical
quality glass which would be placed at an angle between the camera and
the object being filmed. The stars (holes pierced in a back-lit board)
were reflected off this glass. With filming exactly one week away I
then I slipped down to Galway with Rachel to see the Japanese drummer
troupe who were performing in the Arts Festival. Lelia
Doolan saw me there and was amused but approved. My enjoyment of
the music grew from the martial art Aikido I practised for a few years,
and in the dojo there was a sign which said "question authority".
Going down to Galway on the train I wished I had the words tattooed on
my forehead because I realised I hadn't worked out the exact detail of
the impending rehearsal days with the full cast but no one
queried me, so it was only my own examining of the plan that revealed
the flaws. On the journey I put the final touches to two scenes I was
rewriting - sc40 for the cinema roof and foyer, and sc70 which I
still wasn't happy with.
I returned home on Sunday evening and had a quiet night night, going to
bed at eleven. I was awake at 3;30 and couldn't get back to sleep until
5am. On Monday morning I strolled down to the Gaiety Theatre for the
read through with the entire assembled cast and did my best to hide my
terror. We all gathered and I gave a chat about the script - mostly
talking about my Mam and the magic of childhood. I said we were the
smallest film being made in Ireland at the moment - but the one with
the biggest heart. I thanked people and introduced key new faces -
Seamus, James, and even my stalwart friend Liam there for his one line
and moral support.
The read through went fine - it took about an hour and ten minutes.
After a long break for chatting we then talked through things about the
family and rehearsed - quickly and simply - scene seventy one. Then a
chat some more about characters and a read through for the house scenes
with Tony. Everyone was up front and comfortable with their characters
- the general consensus being once everyone was clear about the story
and about their own roles there was no need for over-rehearsing. After
lunch Brendan Gunn worked first with the main four adults and later
just with Tom and Rita on accents while James spent some time with Max
- work that I thought had actually been going on before this.
James was great. By five o'clock all was settled down. Tom and
Rita went off to work with dialogue coach Brendan Gunn and others gone
home. I went home and grabbed a shower and change of clothes,
then went to the production office.
I have read that some directors have superstitions about filming. For
me, that would now be never to walk out the door thinking everything
was going well. The next rehearsal day I went down confidently to the
Gaiety thinking I knew where I stood. Sitting around a table with Rita,
Hugh and Joanne I found that within half an hour we'd run out of things
to do and say. No one wanted to rehearse. This was good in one sense -
everyone was clear about the story and their roles - but also meant
that during the shoot decisions could be happening every second for me.
If I were to move with the schedule yet be rehearsing and locking off a
scene as I went along, I would have to respond yes and no quickly - but
the writer in me had developed solid habits of mulling decisions and I
had hoped to just get on with the work as a director without the
distraction of having to make prompt decision. Rita was also being very
clear about marking her ground - she showed that Brendan Gunn's
voice coaching for a Dublin accent sat uneasily with her and I agreed
to let her use her own Irish voice that she had developed years before
in her film "The Girl with Green Eyes'. She was also very clear about
her look for wardrobe and make-up and hair and was ridding the
character of a certain dowdiness I had imagined. Tom Courtenay was
wonderful, relishing in his accent while going along with the joke of
having his hair sticking out like wings from the helmet and goggles.
I spent hours later in wardrobe/make-up and was delighted to see Hugh
in his gear - most of all to see Joanne transformed into a flouncy
bobby socks teen.
At the end of a mind-blowingly roller coaster day I had a drink with Jo
Manuel. I had to learn to let it all happen. On such days, the reward
for me was to make it home in one piece (with the hot spell at the time
killing me too) and sit on the wall in the back garden smoking a cigar
and drinking white wine.
Never in my life had I experienced anything like the tumult of demands
on my inner strength.
We had our first day of shooting with a photo shoot for background
memorabilia of the family when the father was alive. Mark O'Regan, whom
I'd seen in a film I'd helped, kindly took the thankless role of being
the father in the photos. I was happy that he got a buzz out of playing
Tom Courtenay's brother - even if only for a few photos. The day was
also Jams' ninth birthday so he was presented with a cake at the end of
the shoot. I discovered that Tom is a flautist and spends many of those
long hours waiting on sets practising his playing. My cousin, Bill
Dowdall, is principal flautist with the RTE Symphony Orchestra so I
arranged for the two to meet up. This delighted Tom, and Bill's wife
Susan brought him over during the shoot for what I heard was a very
pleasant evening of food, wine, and flute lessons.
The Thursday before the shoot was an extraordinary experience. I
arrived into the production office late - having written and faxed
through new scenes 28a/b and then bought my panama hat. When I went
into the office I was struck by something - I had become superfluous in
the production base. Whereas before people had turned to me constantly
for information and I was at the centre of attention, I had become
irrelevant. The pre-production meeting at two o'clock lasted about
twenty minutes. No questions. Everyone was clear about what they were
doing and no one could thinking of unresolved issues. I had a meeting
with Brendan, Jo H, and Seamus to establish time frames for daily work
in the first week. It was necessary for me to establish how I should
expect each day to pan out and how to judge if we were getting as many
shots in the can as planned.
That done - at about half three - I wandered over to the Art Department
- where I had always been greeted by a chorus of queries. I was pretty
well ignored. I had to kill a few hours then to wait for the wig
fitting for Hugh. I just went down to Blackrock and hung out and bought
a CD of Holst's Planet Suite. Before leaving I looked around the office
- great activity everywhere, but none of it needing my attention. I
bumped into Jo Manuel and said I felt like the father of a teenage
child - that stage where you fret about what they do but they don't
want you around and you have to get used to that idea.
I took Friday off - except for a conversation in Edit Line in
preparation for the technical requirements at 3 o'clock and a meeting
with Ruth Hunter at MOPS to go through Section 35 documentation.
Basically, there was nothing to do but rest for the few days and be
ready for the fact that the shoot would start on Sunday.
Around town Luke's location directions were cropping up and they were
brilliant - yellow signs in the shape of Flash Gordon space ships. I
was told that on the first call sheet it was traditional for the
director to write a message to the crew. I penned the following, which
I called An Irish Film Makers Prayer;
May the camera rolls rise up to meet us
May the wind machines be always at our backs
May all our troubles be covered in three takes
And may we be in the pub an hour before the weather breaks.
The convention in books about film making is to recount the story of
the shoot in diary form. I did indeed keep a diary, and what follows is
a slightly expanded and dressed up version of the same. I suppose the
main thing that what follows can't convey is the fact that by the time
I was actually shooting the film my life consisted of it and nothing
else. Paddy Breathnach told a brilliant story about an experience he
had during the shoot of his film 'Ailsa' which I think sums up life for
a director during a shoot. He was sharing a two-bedroomed flat with a
friend but had absentmindedly agreed to having a woman friend visiting
Ireland stay with them at the time of the shoot. Paddy, ever the
gentleman, let this woman have his bedroom and elected to come home
from each day's shooting and sleep on the sofa. This was going on for
some weeks when, on a day off, his suspicions were aroused and he asked
his flat mate if something was going on between him and the visitor. He
discovered that not only had love blossomed, but his bedroom had been
free for weeks and he hadn't been around to realise he could have been
sleeping in his own bed.
Home life for me was less noteworthy but poor Rachel did tend to have
me returned either steeped in silent thought or ear-bashing her about
my latest set of frustrations. When you make a film you put your
personal life on hold and pray it's going to still be there for you
when the madness is over. I found out after the shoot that three
relationships ended during the making of the film and one brief
encounter flourished. With such highly charged emotions flying around I
was saddened but not surprised.
Day One (Sunday, August 6th 1995).
I quickly went for a take of the first shot - a master of Sean and
Harry coming around the corner 'shooting' at a passing motorbike. Then
I went for Harry's piece about "dya member when Flash ..." This was a
tracking shot and took some setting up, and when all was ready I called
for a rehearsal. It was brilliant - "we should've filmed that" Shay
said with a smile - but I wasn't rolling. We had to go eight takes, and
by the eighth James had stopped giving anything. My heart nearly
stopped. I covered my ass with cutaways, but knew I didn't have the
performance. The last shot for "that's stupid" was also lack-lustre. I
have to get James to focus on me and yet he's lost in the midst of the
film. After lunch I got a great performance from Sean and in turn
evoked good things from James. I have to take the kid over, make him
trust me, and feed in exactly what I want to get out. At the end of it
all we finished bang on six o'clock with all the shots I wanted even if
not all the performance from James I wanted. It was a relief to at
least get through the material and it was a strange anti-climax to have
people drifting off when what I wanted to do was work another four
hours. I've covered a few things with Tom Conroy by phone and fax, and
now I'm going to crash out. What an exhilarating and challenging day.
I have to get James. He's not focused on me or on being Harry yet.
The day began with simple work on the tracking shots as Harry walked
along the railings from the cinema. When we reached the time of doing
the end of his scene meeting Sean, where the two had to run across the
street and up the road, James tripped and then all hell broke loose.
The boy simply caved in on himself. To make matters worse, Sylvaine
Sainderchin had just come to visit the set. The cause of the fall was
the fact that James was wearing brand new shoes with shining smooth
soles and this sent a furious complaint to the Wardrobe department.
James wanted to go back to his caravan and wouldn't face me.
Within fifteen minutes I had to decide to abandon a take of that last
wide, and while we organised the wide shot of the old man and nervous
dog walking past the bushes James sulked and I discussed the chilling
permutations of replacing him. We were filming in Herbert Park and I
had to go off for a walk on my own to try and quell the panic inside.
Had I made the blunder of casting a boy who was too like Harry - a boy
who really was withdrawn from the world? Brendan Gunn came by, like a
much needed angel from heaven, and had a talk with James. His prognosis
led to a basic set of straight talking conversations. I sat down with
James alone on a park bench and put it to him that he's either in the
picture or out. We went through straight questions; did he want to be
in the film? Yes. Did he want to do the work and deliver Harry to me?
He said yes. I then went into a tough afternoon shoot with James in the
bushes and trying to deal with Max - who still won't connect with him
and wouldn't even do something as simple as eat a biscuit. At the
end of it all, James then did his game of 'cowboys and indians' with
To top it all, when we were wrapping in the park I discovered that
'Max' had peed on my shoulder bag. Way to make a hit with the director,
I felt wiped at the end of it all. Paula Lambert, God Bless her, was on
standby open to the possibility that Johnny might step in and plans
were being rushed together for how we could carry on shooting while
putting in a new Harry. In the event, Johnny's stint as extra was
extended as a small gesture of thanks. At the end of the day there was
a conversation with myself, Noelette, Jo M, Sylvaine, and Marina. I
committed to James as Harry.
There seems to be a general sense of relief that I'm taking the reins,
finishing on time, being clear about what I want, and maintaining my
Deep down inside, however, I repeat a chant to myself; John Victor
Smith, I need you.
James is transformed. He got in and did his work, he chatted with the
crew, and he was giving me great performances. He worked with Hugh
O'Conor in the morning and that helped him a great deal. Hugh's
calmness in the midst of all this must be an inspiration for James who
hangs around him, appropriately, as if Hugh were his big brother. James
then worked with us in Sean's bedroom in the afternoon and was looking
through the camera, chatting with the crew, and best of all giving me
great material. For the third day in a row we finished before six with
all material in the can.
It was only when I saw all this that I realised I had made a profound
mistake of epic proportions. I had taken a little boy, just turned
nine, who had never even been on a film set before and then planked him
in front of lights, camera and fifty people and expected him to take it
in his stride. First I nearly killed his work by making him
over-rehearse, then I nearly psyched him out completely by throwing him
in the deep end without a thought for how to prepare him for being the
centre of all this attention.
That evening I went to see the rushes and even the bad material was
good. It was a tremendous relief, and even better to know that Sylvaine
was behind me and that James has magic up on the screen.
This one always made me shudder when I saw it on the schedule. So early
on and six pages of dialogue. I had rewritten the scene to take place
as they walk down from the roof of the cinema - my main motive being to
see some Dublin panorama and open the film out as I feel it happens too
much in small places. Starting up on the roof with a dolly shoot and
working our way down the fire escape in blazing heat with the crew on
platforms. We got through it all, Seamus very much leading the way and
I working with him as we got coverage for John. The last two shots were
of Mucker and his pals in the foyer. I was delighted with the way
the crew were working, and Sean and James were brilliant although Sean
can get distracted by times which in one sense is good but at times
Rod Stoneman visited the set just in time to see me fumble over a
cutaway shot of the usher, but I was able to dash into the cinema with
Rod and show him a poster we had made up for the background. A film
title I'd made up of an adventure movie starring 'Rod Stone'.
Rod came to see the rushes and there was a minor diplomatic incident.
John Victor Smith hadn't been introduced to him and didn't know who he
was. Rod asked if he could see some cut material and John gave what
might be termed a firm but polite refusal saying he wouldn't show
material to anyone without the director's prior approval. When everyone
had left after viewing the rushes, John showed me a sneak edit of our
first day's scene - scene seventeen. For all my worry about it, we get
almost everything. What a relief.
The first day dealing with cinema crowds. Kids can't take their eyes
off the camera. We have to have volunteers near the monitor to watch
for eye contact as I try to watch for the shot and performance. We
started with Harry shocked, scene 14, but were then into scene thirty
nine, coordinating Harry sneaking out of the cinema and Sean finding
him with a flood of children - eight takes on the master and then
reverses to cover my ass.
I was supposed to then just get one shot of kids flooding out, but
instead got seduced by two other shots and all of a sudden it was early
afternoon and I was screwed. We ended the day two set-ups behind and
decided to come in an hour early next day to get just the Flash stuff
clean on screen. Brendan had warned me but I hadn't listened.
The projectionist didn't arrive and I wound up in the booth lacing the
film and striking up the carbon arc with the aid of Brian Guckian and a
man named Pat. I was back in the Kenilworth aged fifteen again - an
apprentice projectionist. It might have been all very wonderful if I
hadn't kept on screwing up the lacing of the film.
In the morning we went spiffingly based on a simplified plan of action
I'd devised the previous night. Suddenly in the afternoon two hours
disappeared trying to get one shot organised. The problem of kids
looking in the camera causes many re-takes - there seems to be an idea
among children that not looking at the camera is different from not
glancing at the camera. Liam Heffernan did brilliant work focusing the
children and getting bits of character out of them - I would've been
screwed without his organising that. We'd break down each scene into a
set of cues for what the kids were seeing on screen, and as I called
out the numbers he'd get them to respond to that heading.
I also had my bit of nepotism by giving Rachel a part as the ice cream
lady. She was concerned about our secret that as her pregnancy bloomed
she was a tight fit in the costume for which she'd been fitted a few
weeks before. Our secret remained our own, however.
By quarter past five we still needed two shots to complete scene
seventy but had no material behind children looking up at the screen.
Jo Homewood came in with the brilliant solution which I was too stumped
to figure - the two shots were abandoned - they could be done with a
small bunch of kids in a corner of the cinema. We herded in all our
children - two hundred of them - and just put up the full reel of Flash
for them to watch and for Seamus, on tracks, to catch as much of as
possible. Liam walked in and out of shot occasionally to add flavour. I
stood back in wonder at it all.
We wrapped shortly after six and Jo H arrived with a few bottles of
champagne, though hardly anyone touched the stuff.
Gaffer Tony Swan and Grips Philip Murphy both came up and shook hands
with me and thanked me for the first week. I thought things had been
pretty hairy, but in fact the feeling was that things had gone well.
I viewed the rushes and again it all looks great while James and Sean
are wonderful. John told me he'll be able to show me scene forty on
Went for a pint with Seamus, Jo Manuel, and Mark Forstater.
When I got home Bernard was here. We wound up sitting out the back
having a great chat about the film, and the stars, and about magic, and
about magic mushrooms. We drank and smoked cigars and I felt very
happy. Then we went in and watched telly - Whose Lines is it Anyway -
and Rachel arrived home. Not long after, Rach and I went to bed.
I'm up since half six on Saturday morning though I know I'll take a nap
later. As far as I know my writer's fee is on the way to my account,
which is cool.
Tomorrow starts rough again, with Harry's road, and all my main cast,
and patchy weather forecast.
The dog from hell. Max won't do what I want. Then a door I wanted to
have open wouldn't open, and curtains to open for the gardai couldn't
be opened. I had to change one scene on the spot and get access to
another house to work the garda shots. Rita changed her lines twice and
I'm freaked about controlling her.
This day was a hotchpotch of shots for throughout the film of the road
and Harry's house exterior. Rita, Tom and Hugh all had bits to do - one
shot for instance just being of Rita and Tom walking down the path and
getting on the motor scooter. At the end of the day, however, we had
passed slate 100 and as per tradition some bottles of champagne were
popped. Going home it occurred to me that the many onlookers in the
working class corporation suburb would have gotten quite some
impression of film making; they wheel them in, they walk down a path,
they wheel them off, then at the end of the day everyone drinks
champagne. That's fillum's for ya.
This dog must die. Wouldn't pee, wouldn't chase a stick, wouldn't get
into the water, and snarled at Tom. I'm now writing him out of the
script as much as possible. Most satisfying part of the day was filming
Tom, James and Max on the motor scooter. Philip Murphy had devised a
small jib on the low loader so that the shot could start on Tom and
then as they're moving along the camera jibs down to Max. By about four
in the afternoon it was plain that were were getting ahead of ourselves
and I again asked my old cry if we could get shots to open up the film.
Luke went off searching for locations near Phoenix Park - around the
Guinness Works - and at five we dashed off in two vans and the motor
scooter driver to grab a few shots of the bike going along old Dublin
Today with Tom Courtenay and my main master stroke was to do the
reaction shots of Harry first, particularly giving the nod to Seamus to
grab shots of him while he thought lights were being set up and so
forth - I got real looks of boredom. Tom was amazingly nervous at the
start, then got into it. We finished this work early - about three
o'clock - and my suggestion was that we get back to the cinema and film
the Flash Gordon material clean off the screen. This would mean I could
let James off early. Brendan and Jo Homewood, however, wanted to try
pull together a way of catching up the two shots we were behind. In the
end James waited over two hours as this plan didn't work out. I had a
row with Brendan and Jo and was kicking myself for not just insisting
on letting James go.
Today we did planet happy family and the work was trojan. The previous
evening, however, it suddenly dawned on me that I'd made a dreadful
casting mistake - I had cast a boy a Sean's brother who was not much
different in age from Harry. This was dramatically all wrong. Such a
character would have to feature in the story. He would also drastically
reduce the likelihood that Sean would make such friends with Harry. In
the morning when I arrived on set I confessed to Noelette and then to
the second AD Karen Richards. They joined me as I went down to take
another look at the boy as he stood with James and Sean. My worst fears
were realised - he was nearly the same height as Harry and no more than
a year younger. Karen carried out the dirty deed, giving the boy some
story that the filming had been changed for the day and being able to
arrange some other extra work for the boy. I don't think he ever knew
exactly what was happening, and his mother was very forgiving. But
morally I felt I'd reached a new low - I'd fired a seven year old boy.
I could hear the doors of Hell open and the welcome mat placed outside
with my name on it. During the day the hand of God didn't strike,
however, and the work united us as everyone enjoyed and tucked in. We
did sixteen set-ups.
Later we viewed the rushes of the pub scene and I'm kicking myself that
I didn't ask Tom to make the pauses and changes of tack as he squirmed
in the face of Harry's silence. Later still we looked at material
projected which established that a set of cinema footage is out of
focus and we have to do a day in the cinema - hey presto we're a day
behind schedule. Later still, all hell has broken loose because our
Mucker, Kevin James, is not to be found and changes of plan are being
worked out even as I write this at ten o'clock at night. We get into
the cinema tomorrow, and I will most likely re-cast Mucker. The
experience of film making turns more and more into navigating - riding
the roller coaster. I'm getting drunk. After a great day, a plunge into
chaos and gloom. Tomorrow I'll have to be at the helm again and ignore
The week has tumbled into an abyss. It took all day to do the cinema
reshoots, which means that I'm now a full day behind. Also, I can't get
Hugh O'Conor for tomorrow and so I'm picking up other shots in the
school corridor and so on tomorrow. While I do my best the film
falters. The bright side is that I saw the happy family material and it
looks great. John also showed me a stretch of cut material and it looks
great - though I still think he's cutting too fast.
Tomorrow, after the shoot, I'll be facing the HODs with my grievances.
As Seamus wryly put it, that's not something to be done at lunch time
in case there are people working together for the afternoon who need to
be off sulking.
The work doing various corridor scenes went fine, and everyone is
working well. At the end of the day I sat with the heads and aired my
grievances, explaining them in simple terms of what happened and asking
which fell into the category of shit happens and which into the
category of avoidables. It went peacefully. There's a saying from
somewhere - when it's good it's really good, when it's bad it goes to
During my day off I sat down and wrote a four day plan of shots. In the
days of my innocence I had hoped that the three classroom sequences
would be done separately. To catch up, however, I had pored over the
storyboards and listed all the shots looking up the classroom, down the
classroom, and out the window. This list, backed up by the storyboard,
was handed to all the relevant heads. We then worked out the best order
in which to do each set of shots, and could even give advance warning
that we were two shots away from a set up needing all the pupils and so
on. In the first day in the classroom we did eighteen set-ups.
Close friends of Seamus are going through a terrible bereavement and he
is under dreadful pressure. He tries to keep contact with them and
rushed off to see them yesterday. Tomorrow he's going to a funeral and
Shane O'Neill will take his place for half the day. Ian McElhinney is
taking all the pressure in his stride and did a delightful bit of work
today when I needed reaction shots of scared boys and was getting
nothing. He ad-libbed venom and when one boy chuckled Ian roared with
such vehemence that even I shuddered.
We ended the day with my poor friend Liam suffering the indignity of
being filmed with his face blacked, and later with hair covering his
eyes, to provide what will be the eyes in the back of Brother Dowdall's
We're a half day ahead. The shots looking out the window were completed
today while the schedule had expected that to happen tomorrow.
It was the first over-cast day. We did the scene of Paul sorting out
Mucker, but rain started coming in and we didn't get the last close up
of Paul talking to Harry. Most disappointing for me is that we missed a
shot I'd hoped to do as a kind of homage to Chaplin's 'The Kid'.
There's a shot towards the end of that where Chaplin, having chased off
the baddies, makes a kind of shuffle to make chase again. I wanted
Mucker to call back something at Paul and had discussed the shuffle bit
with Hugh. But then the rain came down.
We got through the 'real' fight in the school by eleven o'clock and
soldiered on to the set and the Mercury Man set up. At lunch time a boy
took ill and was taken by ambulance to hospital. Even before this event
I was feeling overwhelmed with emotion, but back on set in the
afternoon I couldn't contain myself. I had to call on Brendan to usher
me out as quietly as possible and I cried for a while around the side
of the building just to get through the emotion of seeing these sets of
my home, and the spaceship of fantasy, and the release of being at the
turning point of production. By the end of the day we were back on
In the evening, at my suggestion, there was an open invitation to the
crew to come to the rushes and watch a stretch of material cut by John.
Noelette and I picked up beers and popcorn on the way to the cutting
room and about fifteen or so crammed into the room on the muggy evening
to watch our work and enjoy. I was very glad about doing this and
wished that everyone had come along to see just what we were
Seamus' terrible week is being topped off by the fact that we're
filming in the livingroom set with the fire lit and the fumes make him
nauseous. The work moves along, although I sense we've all slowed down
a bit as we adjust to this more controlled environment. There have been
some problems with the stability of the sets due to the fact that the
Basketball arena, as a matter of design, has a flexible floor.
Today was my forty third birthday and in the afternoon I was presented
with a cake "From Mercury Boy to Mercury Man" and the gift of a sci-fi
teeshirt which I immediately changed into.
Saturday was a complete day off - my first since the start of the film.
Oddly, as Rachel and I were strolling through town, we were walking
behind Neil Jordan - also on his day off and in the middle of making
his film. You couldn't throw a brick in Dublin without hitting a film
I had a nerve racking day directing and choreographing Tom, Rita, Hugh,
Joanne, and Harry. I just couldn't get my head around what to do with
so many people on screen at the same time. As it turned out later I
also failed to get a particular shot which would have come in very
handy. This sequence was followed by the scene where Mammy breaks down,
and Rita let the tears flow. I was scared. After her takes - I had to
go three times - I knelt beside her and asked her if she wanted a cup
of tea. I really don't want people getting upset over the making of a
When I saw the rushes of the first shooting in the livingroom I
realised I had screwed up yet again. Seamus at one stage mentioned
"we're seeing a lot of the set". What he was actually saying was we
were seeing too much of the set. As a help to our moving quickly Tom
had built all the sets a third bigger than reality so we wouldn't
necessarily have to keep flying walls. I hadn't absorbed this fact and
I have filmed two wide shots of the livingroom which make it look the
size of a barn. The livingroom of my home in Crumlin was probably about
eight feet wide. I'm kicking myself! What a gobshite!
In the original plans, we were going to film Harry's bedroom in its
rightful place upstairs in the set. Philip Murphy, bless him, had
wisely pointed out that this could be time consuming and had advised
separating the shots where we need to see out the bedroom from those
where we don't and doing the latter on ground floor. This has turned
out to be a great move in time efficiency.
As for the set itself, I poured as much memorabilia as I could get to
hand - featuring my dear old blanket which has been with me since I was
thirteen years old and going off to Blackrock College as a Scholastic.
This evening I got home by six thirty. I keep having anxiety dreams
about the film - like the one I had with the entire crew in the editing
corridor of RTE and my knowing there was no scene from the film set
there, or the one where we were moving to a new location but I had gone
to the wrong place.
But I love it all.
Day Twenty One.
Harry's bedroom. James is amazing. He gets giggly, he plays around with
his toys, he jokes with everyone, then the camera turns over and he
delivers magic. He's brilliant.
Day Twenty Two.
Completed the set of Harry's bedroom downstairs - early. In the first
weeks of shooting I used to scribble down the list of shots I expected
each day and hand them to Rene Burke to translate into legible English.
Since the success of time gained in the school room sequences, these
lists are shown openly and are a benefit to all. Tom Conroy arrived on
set admitting there was nothing else we could film (sets have to be
reorganised while we film in Mount Jerome). My chest filled with pride
when I overheard him say to Jo Homewood "the same thing happens with
There were many reasons for our speed. To begin with, I had established
that James' performance only deteriorated with time so if a set-up was
ready we'd shoot as soon as possible - often shooting the rehearsal and
finding it was perfect. I was also often happy to go with the first
take if I believed I had all I wanted. On this matter my editing
experience often came into play - for instance I'd rarely bother to
repeat a take of a wide shot as I'd know it was only going to be used
at maybe the start or end of a cut scene so it would be a waste of time
to get bogged down in perfecting the entire shot. But the work of
Seamus Deasy was profoundly important in our progress. Lighting and
operating, he was always leading the way. Shay was incredibly fast at
lighting, and the material always looked beautiful. His cool demeanour
kept a positive, ever efficient mood among the crew.
Day Twenty Three.
We got ahead of ourselves again in Mount Jerome, covering seven pages
of dialogue at the grave in one day. The choice of shots was
relatively straightforward, and working with two or three actors
standing in one place with the weather consistent meant everything was
in our favour. A minor irritation for me was the fact that the day was
overcast in the morning when we shot the first graveside scene with
Harry Mam and Paul, but the day had turned sunny for the time we shot
Harry's lying to his father in the afternoon. Harry's soliloquy with
Sean is a heartbreak for me - I've so much personal references in there
- so I was much relieved to be past it. At the end of the best take -
the third due to my being hard with James to get what I wanted and
probably screwing up his performance in the process - I was choking
During lunchtime I bought flowers and visited my parents grave which is
near where we were filming.
Day Twenty Four.
We completed the rest of the Mount Jerome shoot by lunchtime. This was
the last day of filming with Sean. During the shoot I had an ongoing
joke with him about his drinking and womanising and as the crew bade
him farewell we presented him with a whiskey bottle - filled with Coke.
At one stage the bould Philip Murphy was getting us ahead of ourselves
by laying down track for a shot we'd be moving on to. Shay then
realised that the laid track needed to be moved a few feet to the left.
What happened next, Shay says, is a tribute to the atmosphere on the
film. Everyone - gaffers, drivers, props and all, stood in a row inside
the tracks and picked them up to move them over - thereby saving all
the time it would have taken the grips crew to dismantle and relay the
At lunchtime I was able to give Mister Hickey and his granny June the
rest of the day off - with a late start the following Sunday in studio.
Then the crew moved back into studio for the last time and we managed
to do the scullery scene between Mam and Paul before wrapping.
This fantastic work meant that I had earned my wish - two days of
filming for the kitchenette roof scenes as we faced into the last week
of principal photography.
Day Twenty Five.
The curse of thinking all is well strikes again. I had been looking
forward to this week and feeling delighted to be on the home stretch.
However, a stomach bug had been doing the rounds among the crew and
this morning it was my turn. Every time I walked on the set I'd feel
nauseous, and at one stage a monitor was provided for me near the door
of the arena so I could breathe fresh air and try directing long
distance. This, of course, didn't work.
A doctor was called while Jo Homewood started making sounds about an
insurance claim and calling off the day's shoot. Rachel came by with a
change of clothes - my gut felt bloated and restricted in the trousers
I was wearing. We soldiered through and the doctor came and making a
simple diagnosis gave me an injection. He said I should drink flat
Seven-up for the day, and suddenly there were flagons of it everywhere.
I felt better quickly and the day's work was on track by about ten
This was the week of goodbyes and they would happen almost daily. Tom
performed his last scene - pointing out that in the shoot he had done
his last appearance in the film on his first day and his first
appearance in the film on his last day. Appropriate for Uncle Tony.
Day Twenty Six.
Another 'last'. Rita finished on the film today. She had always been
the one who made me most nervous - she knows so much about film that
she would come up with ideas that would at times derail my fixed ideas.
Working with James, I had gotten into the habit of deciding how a shot
would work as I used his stand-in Ben, then bring in James and he would
follow my plan of action precisely. Rita, however, would knock this on
the head from time to time by coming on set and suggesting other
things. The things themselves usually worked and it taught me that when
I was working with her I should bring her on set for a walk through
before locking off any plans. Of all the people in the cast she's the
one I could have done with more time getting to know beforehand. From
an actor's point of view I think film making is all about trust, and I
think Rita and I would have produced better work between us if I had
overcome my fear and she had understood more of where I was coming
from. Above all else I underestimated her intelligence and could have
gained by including her more.
Day Twenty Seven.
The mood among us all is very good and my modest hope is that we're for
smooth sailing on the home stretch. Navigator indeed - not director. I
noticed something about myself as a director today - I always stay
close to the actors. At one point Hugh was standing inside the
kitchenette set while a wall was being moved and I just instinctively
went in and stood beside him. I also have a habit of going off set to
meet actors on their way in for filming. I don't know where the
instinct comes from but I think it's a good one.
Day Twenty Eight.
We're filming on the roof set - this being the biggest and most complex
set of the film, with the backyards stretching back in forced
perspective and the ghost glass between the camera and the set. The
going is slow and shooting is difficult because the slightest movement
on set causes the stars to wobble in the shot. There were problems with
what size the stars should be and with the fact that sometimes the
light from them was too uneven to look right. Incredible lengths of
time were taken up with the distribution of stars and checking for
lights spills. Tedious work - imagine that in the original schedule all
kitchenette shooting was down for one day!
Day Twenty Nine.
The last day with actors. Soon I'll live it all over again as the stark
reality of the footage stares me in the face - but what I've seen so
far gives me the sense that a little bit of magic has happened over the
past few weeks.
I had been woken at one in the morning by a homeless film maker who
shall remain nameless and couldn't sleep after.
With three hours sleep behind me I went in and Brendan immediately
arranged a bed for me to grab another half hour's sleep between half
seven and eight. On set we quickly moved on to the shot of Harry almost
falling off the roof - done with three people standing in his immediate
vicinity and with James yards back from the edge. Pat Keenan visited
from SIPTU, and as we stood on the roof looking at the vista he said
"this looks like Crumlin" - which was amazing because he didn't know I
was from Crumlin or that the story was notionally set there.
We then did the final two shot of Paul and Harry on the roof and James,
with vital help from Hugh, was able to give me a wonderful performance.
It's the one scene above all where James needed to be upset and I
certainly didn't want him to actually be upset. Hugh was able to teach
him a few tricks with breathing and so on to get the effect. At the end
of the second take I had tears in my eyes. There's a moment there - I
had asked them for this adjustment - they look at each other at
separate times. Two brothers so far apart. I knew then and there to
drop scene 65(?) at the kitchen table. The next time we see Paul is
when he's the hero.
At lunchtime I was rushed to the head of the queue, had a quick meal,
and went to sleep for another hour.
We soldiered on with ghost glass shots and the many shots for scene
one. Everyone worked together and the hours went on until we went past
six and the sandwiches were rolled in. It was an odd day for James. His
last day, yet he would just come on from time to time for a few minutes
and sit in that place and do this action and then go back outside to
play and be minded. By eight we were doing the last shot of the day -
the jib shot down from Harry with his head out the window to some
unidentifiable figure - Hugh - doing a groovy version of the Shadows
moves. It was in the can on the second take.
The end of the day was rounds of applause for James and Ben (his
stand-in) and Hugh and June. For many it was the last day. For me, a
realisation that my journey was about to become lonely again as I
headed towards the long haul of the edit.
We rushed on to rushes, and then I headed home. Despite my tiredness I
couldn't go to bed. I had the house to myself and sat up past eleven
just buzzed by it all.
The last day and I got to make my appearance. In the nightmare scene a
hand wallops through the latex door - me - then I walloped my face
forward through the other panel and looked around to James' eyeline - a
fine end to a nightmare. We got other pick-ps, then Raymond Keane was
ready after his hours of preparations for the Jesus on the cross shot.
How to do the shot of Jesus coming alive on the cross had long been a
matter of debate, and in the end the plan was that a statue would be
made modelled on Raymond and then we cut to his close-up and he moves.
Caroline Dunne had done this work, and Pamela Smyth worked with her on
the day as Raymond went through his hours of make-up and mask fitting.
The poor guy must have gone through agony. He had colourless contact
lenses put in - and they irritated his eyes - and the mask meant he
couldn't eat, drink or speak for hours. When he was brought on set, we
filmed the shot but I knew straight away that we would have to re-film
the shots previously taken of the statue as the mask had far more
detail and the cut wouldn't work. When the shot was done, we all gave
Raymond a round of applause and he gallantly blessed us. I wanted to
thank him later but he had rushed away as soon as he was out of the
We then did the exploding grave - designed and executed by Martin Neill
- and it was a wrap.
A wrap. Where did all those years go? Did I really once go out on a
location for the first day after walking around Iveagh Gardens the
evening before trying to figure how I'd do the scene? Did I really
reach a crisis with James on the second day? Did I really work with Tom
and Rita and Hugh and Ian through the script? Did that really happen?
I was home by half past six and was in bed by seven. I got up at half
eight and got into the bath after Rachel. I went to the wrap party
looking forward to a great time and wound up leaving before midnight
because nothing on God's earth could make that DJ at the Ormond Multi
Media Centre turn down the volume on the horrendous rave music even
though I was in agony at the sound level. I had intended to announce
the news about Rachel's pregnancy but as I couldn't hear myself talk I
only managed to yell it in the ears of a few people. I write these
words at one AM. Almost all the film is in the can. John has cut
virtually everything he's received. After the weekend - I'm viewing
rushes on Saturday and talking to Jo about marketing on Sunday - a very
reduced crew handles the travelling lights on Monday/Tuesday while on
Wednesday it seems we're getting school shots. Martin Neill, who is
providing the travelling lights, has devised a simple system of two
tiny high strength battery powered bulbs side by side on a long wires
which are connected to a scaffolding. All low tech but it works.
I hope to get away next weekend, then the following week I see John's
Basically, though, I just made a fillum.
One last note. At one point during that horrendous experience otherwise
known as the wrap party I looked out and there was a little boy
glancing at me as he walked towards the dance floor. A little boy just
turned nine. His name, James Hickey.
Here are a few lessons that spring to mind.
Film making is about trust. Show the cast and crew that you can be
trusted - earn their trust - and all will go well. Getting to the point
where you make a film is, in itself, such a long haul that there must
be a huge ego involved in making it happen so people naturally think
they're going to wind up serving your whims. If you can show
that's not the case - and you can only show it if it truly isn't the
case - then they will acknowledge that they aren't your pawns and will
enter into the commune which is the process of film making without
resentment or suspicion.
Get your cast and crew right - cast everyone, really, and if the mix is
right nothing will go that far wrong.
All the preparation and storyboarding was invaluable.
I should have brought James out with me to visit the sets of films
before I ever launched him into being the star of a film.
Never work with dogs.
A director is the most enduring tyrant, probably. Even though I think I
wasn't too bad to work with I'll really never know - in many ways I
discovered that the slightest comment of mine became enlarged by people
who thought that the right thing to do was to keep me happy. Like my
tummy bug on Sunday - the doctor was rushed out, there were flagons of
flat Seven Up on standby, and I found out at the wrap that Philip Dwyer
had been alerted that an insurance claim was in the offing - all
because an ordinary human being like me was feeling nauseous.
I love the Woody Allen quote - everyday the truck arrives with a new
load of compromises. It became a shorthand for me in the last few days.
I'd say to Seamus "the truck just arrived" and we'd work around a
The day after filming I strolled up to Rathmines in the evening to buy
a few magazines. As I was trying to make my selection I was distracted
by the noise of the people bustling around and for an instant - a brief
but real instant - I was about to call out for quiet as I was trying to
think. Fortunately I caught myself on. Being a director is a heady
experience and you can easily forget that you're not the centre of the
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
I love film editing and I was relishing the prospect of working with
John Victor Smith. To my shame I hadn't spent any leisure time with
himself or his assistant Gabby Smith during the shoot, but I looked
forward to weeks of the ten minute stroll from my home to the cutting
room, watching John's work and having this thing I'd created take shape
in his hands.
There was still filming to be done - two grim days with a reduced crew
sitting in the dark shooting the lights in the sky. It all felt
incredibly anti-climactic. In the end we had to refilm the green and
white lights because for some reason the green didn't register. It took
me days afterwards to unwind from the filming, and I would wake and
sleep at all hours. Wanting to make a European Script Fund deadline
with my next project - a sci-fi thriller based on my novel MOTHERSHIP -
I used the gap while waiting for John to complete his cut to draw up an
outline for the film in time for the end of September deadline. While
such work was probably a testament to my energy, the fact is I wished
in later months that I had gone away on a holiday for the week instead.
Towards the end of the filming an issue had loomed which came to a
head. Because there was no Irish-French co-production agreement the
film had been regarded as an English-French co-production. But for this
to be acceptable, elements of the film had to be English. Jo Manuel's
role, the cast and coincidentally the hiring of John and Gabby fitted
in with these needs, but there was a demand from the Department of
National Heritage to increase the English profile. And so it was that
Jo broke the news to me that the film had to be edited in England. At
first I refused. Then I seethed. Then finally I accepted. We would be
based at Twickenham Film Studios and would make the move as soon as we
had gotten past my first cut - a matter of weeks. It was a great
disappointment not to edit in Ireland, and my dreams of a quiet autumn
in Dublin went down the tubes. At least John was happy with the
prospect - particularly since he lived near the studio. It was a great
comfort to me to feel at least that he would know the ropes there.
The day finally came for me to sit down and look at John's edit. It's
running time was 100 minutes. He said, jokingly, that this could be a
traumatic experience. He was right. The film felt flat, and as I
watched I ran mental notes of cuts I'd want to make. Worst of all,
however, was my sense that the film wasn't lifting off the screen. It
was a terrible feeling. The realisation finally struck that I was no
longer dealing in the abstract. I had a finite amount of material and
performances which existed on film. While a few scenes were enjoyable
just for their technical fun - like the nightmare or planet happy
families - others seemed merely competent. Lord save me from
mediocrity! There were a few clangers too like showing the enormity of
the livingroom set. My biggest fear was for James' performance. It was
underplayed and natural - but was it too little? John was confident
that music would make a difference, but that meant depending big time
on Stephen McKeon. If I didn't feel his theme is working, we were
The audience had to be engaged by Harry to want to follow the story.
Nothing else mattered. The music had to be the glue joining them to the
boy, so that they reach in for his performance. This was a tall order.
Immediate responses were agreed. We would drop scene 66 (?) at the
kitchen table so we only see Paul arrive in instead of the priest. We'd
also drop the walk with Paul marching ahead of Harry as it would sit
wrong after they hold hands. John agreed on tightening the happy
family, tightening the first classroom, and I agreed with his idea of
shifting the claw in the graveyard down to before scene 29 (?). Two
cinema scenes needed to be restructured to happen more within the
boundaries of Flash.
We went for lunch and then I went home. I felt miserable. You work on a
script, you shoot takes, you go from day to day with all possibilities
open - then you arrive in this cul-de-sac and have to fight you way out
to find the story with no more building blocks to work with than those
you have gathered and stacked in the cutting room. A cloud hung over
the rest of the day and I returned to John next day to sit with him and
talk my way through the film as Gabby made notes. This was the
beginning of my cut - which would then be presented to the financiers
for their response. Sitting down with John we totalled between us
almost fifty year of editing experience so for sure the film was going
to be all it could be. The only draw back was that it had been made by
a first time feature film director whose inexperience needed to be
My short film 'Splice of Life' had been all about the way editing can
change performance and meaning in a scene. John's cut hardly needed
major surgery, and as we talked through the second viewing I was more
heartened by the film. As an editor I loved John's style as much as I
learned to admire the man himself. When he had strong views about
something I bowed to his superior knowledge while on the few times I
held strong views to the contrary he bowed to my rank. This was a great
relief to me as I have, over the years, seen situations where editors
took re-cuts as personal affronts and were willing to put more time
into arguing a cut with a director than it would have taken to do the
re-cut and let it stand or fall on its own merits. The changes
discussed for the first wave of cuts were mutually approved, and I also
provided some more temporary music.
In the two weeks that followed I trawled the film first for the things
that appalled me and later for the things that irritated me. Scenes
like the pub scene with Uncle Tony and Harry, the visit to Sean's
family and the cinema sequences were all cut back. Several of the
opening scenes were tightened - particularly the poem in the first
classroom scene. Some lines that never quite worked were dropped, and
certain preferences I had for shots were accommodated. We then brought
Stephen McKeon in for his first look at the film and he watched it
without comment from me. The terms for the nature of the music had been
agreed - an orchestral score and Stephen's belief that there should be
a recurring theme with variations. With little said after his viewing,
Stephen went off with a videotape of that cut of the film to start
coming up with music. Stephen composes on computer with synthesised
sounds for musical instruments - the quality is surprisingly good. In
due course I would get back to him for a session where he would present
his music as laid to the video.
By the end of the two weeks John and I had completed my first cut and
the film ran ninety minutes. We did a simple pre-mix of the sound and
had laid in a number of temporary music pieces. Watching a film at this
stage is very difficult because the sound is so patchy and without
music a film can be very cold. Yet this was how Rod Stoneman on behalf
of the Film Board and Clare Duignan and Martin Mahon on behalf of RTE
would view it. A further difficulty was that since the film was being
cut on the Lightworks system it existed only as a video image and so
had to be watched on a TV monitor.
The outcome of this viewing is still talked about with some amusement
and amazement by those present. As an editor I had been present and
dozens of these screenings and knew exactly what to expect. What hadn't
dawned on me was the fact that I'd never before been the one in taking
the criticism - and I wasn't mentally or emotionally prepared for it.
During the film, Clare was generous with her laughter though Rod was
mainly silent and busy writing notes - I was hanging on every reaction.
When the screening ended the first response was one of approval. Clare
made some general comments but was mainly supportive. She realised, a
Martin said, that music would make a huge difference to how the film
would hold together. Martin had in fact urged me not to show the film
until the music was done but this was impossible in the time frame of
the post production schedule. Then Rod began to talk.
My relationship with Rod was a good one and I'd seen him go through the
same process when I was editing 'Hushabye Baby'. As he listed points,
however, I started feeling hostile. He felt that he wasn't drawn in to
Harry's world and thought that voice over might be needed from Harry at
the start of the film to bring the audience in. He felt the first half
was too slow. He said the nightmare scene was unstructured and the
'Planet Happy Family' was too long. He criticised certain 'double
edits' where we had cut back a second time to shots like the blood on
Sean's shirt or the scar he shows later. The list went on and my
temperature rose. Having heard him out I went completely on the
defensive and said that John and I would consider his points but if at
the end of the day I didn't go along with them we'd have to agree to
differ and my judgement would hold. He talked then about viewings with
sample audiences and battle lines were drawn up. Martin rowed in trying
to cool the situation, but after the screening Rod left hurriedly and I
was left with the grim realisation that if he didn't like the next cut
of the film the situation would escalate.
A VHS of this cut had also been sent to Jo Manuel and Sylvaine
Sainderchin who both came back with comments but most particularly felt
the film was too long and the first half too slow. At this stage there
was a brief pause in the edit as John and Gabby moved back to England
and set up the cutting room in Twickenham. I was left with dark
thoughts of having to fight for my film while going over and over in my
head what way I would treat a situation where I had a film I was happy
with but Rod didn't approve on behalf of the Board. My basic feeling
was that the knee jerk response to any film is to say make it shorter
and don't trust your audience. Every film could be quicker. It's the
time you spend trusting your audience that matters, I believe. You
can't pander to the notion that you have an audience who don't want to
go the distance with you.
I moved to London and, after one grim night in a Bed and Breakfast in
Teddington was moved to the very pleasant Riverside Hotel just ten
minutes walk from the studio. John and I had a week in which to come up
with a revised cut which I could then bring back to Stephen so he could
start locking off his music. In this time the film lost another few
minutes. As we worked I would get a call from Stephen from time to time
as he was working on scenes. He would play music for me down the phone
and ask me what I thought. It all sounded good. John and I would
address the comments and tick them off one by one. The nightmare scene
was proving the most difficult to get a fix on and we pored over all
the material. In the end what emerged was a leaner version with
hopefully added tension through the fact that everything seems to have
settled before suddenly the door warps. During this time we were also
visited by a man who had been for me at least a silent partner in the
film; Gerard Jourd'hui - the French side of the deal through his
company Blue Dahlia. He flattered me by calling me an auteur and I
later phoned Rachel to boast by saying 'hey Rach - I'm an otter!".
I returned to Dublin with the new edit and went out to Stephen McKeon
on Saturday night to be presented with his music. He brought me through
the film, cueing in the music pieces off his computer. The theme was
beautiful but as I watched I made several notes. When this screening
was done we talked through my comments. Fortunately, Stephen was open
to my suggestions and on one occasion even composed a little piece on
the spot - the music for when Paul take Harry's hand. While our
dialogue was healthy Stephen warned that his schedule to deliver the
scored music on time for the booking we'd been locked into was very
tight. This would mean that we were in almost daily contact as I tried
to explain to him if scenes were altering in ways that would impact on
When I got back to London to lay the music one element of the story
emerged - at least to me - that took me by surprise. People had talked
before - and I had thought before - that the story ended with Harry
growing up. Far from it, and the music made it clear. Harry becomes a
child of eight. He stops carrying his fantasies as a burden. His big
brother and his Mam will take care of him. He doesn't need to work out
any more ploys. He can be a little boy and enjoy being such. The
general consensus in the cutting room was that the score worked and was
beautiful. I started to feel less afraid of responses to the next
screening of the film.
Over the following weeks the picture edit continued while Chris Ackland
and his crew joined the team for the sound. Already based in the
studio, he was able to begin gathering sounds and preparing for the
dialogue replacement sessions with John. While my admiration for John
knows no bounds and I could get repetitive in my praise of him, I saw
just how brilliantly committed he was over these weeks. He was my
greatest ally and would work day in and day out with an energy and
unstinting commitment that I know I hadn't displayed in my years of
editing. During this time I also managed to socialise a little with
himself and his wife Elaine and coaxed out stories of his past work
with directors like Richard Lester and Sidney Lumet. In the studio he
was treated with respect and a certain amount of dread - he is
notoriously particular about work standards and would have nothing but
the best for the film.
In my evenings in my hotel room I was kicking around variations on a
story about a man, magic, and redemption. I had different scenarios, a
title I cherished and won't even reproduce here, but no progress on
getting characters that really brought the whole thing to life.
During my stay I also met up with Conor McAnally and his wife Kay, Jo
Manuel, Karen Street (who was in the process of taking a brave step by
leaving the European Script Fund so that she'd have more time to write)
and finally Sylvaine Sainderchin. I always referred to Sylvaine as the
woman who changed my life. It was she who had brought the bulk of the
money into the film, had supported me all through the film's making,
and yet had remained so much in the background that I hardly knew her.
She has remained something of an enigma to me and still as private and
even remote as ever.
By late October it was time to face the backers again. The film had a
running time of 85 minutes without titles or end credits. Most but not
all of Stephen's music was done and the synthesiser versions laid. The
viewing took place in the Irish Film Centre and the film was being
shown on a larger video screen which had the drawback of not being very
crisp. I met Martin first and he was exuding my nerves as he tried to
calm me for the meeting. Everyone knew that there would be tension
between Rod and I, and I confess that I was bristling for an argument.
When Rod arrived Martin went into overdrive gushing out anything to
talk about other than the task at hand. Clare - who had been delayed -
arrived and the viewing began. I had a backache at the time and lay on
the floor at the back of the room watching the film.
At the end Clare applauded. Rod congratulated me and said the film
worked wonderfully. The weight that lifted off my shoulders was hardly
quantifiable. What I couldn't say to Rod and in fact only said to him
many months later when we met in Cannes was that he had been right in
his opinions. Just about all the points he'd made had been taken on
board for the better of the film. The problem had been that I just
hadn't developed a facility for considering and dealing with
constructive criticism a a film maker. When we finally talked about it
Rod reminded me that at such screenings people are responding to
support the film rather than knock it. It had been a remarkable lesson
for me to discover that the one area of film making where I believed
I'd feel most comfortable turned out to in fact be the greatest source
of stress. It was a huge learning experience and hopefully I'll behave
better next time.
After the screening I came home to an empty house wishing I could party
all night. I had fine cut approval from RTE and the Film Board. The
next day I returned to London and later presented the film to Jo and
Sylvaine. To my delight they both gave their approval. All that
remained with the picture edit was to make a few minor adjustments and
finalise a few details about special effects shots. Chris Ackland now
went into full swing to build up the sound in preparation for the dub.
ADR - dialogue replacement - is the closest thing a film maker gets to
a second chance. During the edit I had grown very unhappy with some
bits of performance and dialogue and I was able to add these to the
list of lines to be done in the ADR sessions. By what I think is proof
that necessity is the mother of invention I also came up with a touch
that gets a decent laugh in the film. There's a shot where Rita is
standing at the door of the house watching out for the return of Harry
and Paul. In the foreground, at my request, two boys walk by with a
broken go-cart. Due to a screw-up on my part Rita's cueing is wrong and
she stands in an empty frame for what seemed like forever before
walking down as Hugh and James come into shot. I came up with lines
carrying on as the boys exit the frame - "it was your fault", "I told
you it couldn't do turns", "what use is it if it can't do shaggin'
turns." - and the dead screen time was filled.
We had four days booked in Ardmore Sound - a new facility being set up
by Pat Hayes, Jim Colgan and Paul Moore - and John and Chris were over
for the work. I met James Hickey for the first time in months and he
was in fine form. Chris had a plan for James which would involve two
and a half days work, but it was agreed that the task was so difficult
that he would have a sliding scale of needs so that some lines wouldn't
be replaced if we ran out of time. True to form, James amazed us all.
He completed the work in two days. He was amazingly self-assured and
could achieve such things as not only miming the lines perfectly but
changing intonation and emphasis to give a better performance. For my
part, a significant change I made with James is to me a perfect example
of how just a word could strengthen the message of a scene. When Harry
is going to bed and turns to look at Paul and Sarah, his voice over
says "The Mercurians have fixed it so Paul will come to the rescue." I
added one word. "Paul will always come to the rescue." I felt it
conveyed more strongly the parental tone to their new relationship.
The following day Sean and Kevin came in, and it was while working with
Sean that I made a final alteration to the lines in the last cinema
scene. I'd always been unhappy with the dialogue but on the spot
changed an off-camera line and I think it helped improve matters.
Having Sean around must have somehow been lucky for me, because as I
was sitting having lunch with him and his mother an idea struck me for
a new screenplay. It lopped into my head mid sentence and I had to
excuse myself shortly afterwards and go off and write down what had
come - the idea for THE WISH. It was a distillation of the ideas I'd
been trying unsuccessfully to work through in previous months. I have
no idea how creativity works, but that instant when you get hit by an
idea is one of the most exciting experiences in life.
Liam Heffernan came in next morning to replace his usher lines and then
added more touches - including the sounds of the monster in the
nightmare scene. Then a small troupe of boys came in for other lines
and reactions - including the broken go-cart lines. I suppose the best
fun of all was a little joke between myself, John and Chris. In the
scene where Harry and Sean sit on the steps of the cinema foyer there's
supposed to be a film in progress so we should hear something of it. I
scripted a Bogart/Cagney style gangster scene and this was performed by
myself, John and Chris. Later in the dub John would make sure that his
favourite line - "Lefty's toined chicken" - could be heard.
A few days later it was time to record the music. Given the tightness
of the budget we could only afford one day's recording with the
orchestra - this in turn broken down to a morning with the full
orchestra and an afternoon with a reduced one. We were in the
Windmill Lane recording studios, and I sat in the booth quietly as
Stephen and his orchestrater worked through the music pieces. Stephen
had done a wonderful job, and the sessions went with amazing ease.
Nearly thirty minutes of music was recorded and there were some great
music moments - a favourite of mine being the Uncle Tony music. My
cousin Bill Dowdall was in the orchestra and later stayed on to play a
flute solo which is used over part of the end credits.
The following day the music was mixed and then I returned to
London for Wednesday through to Friday for the laying of the music, the
final approval of the pictures, selection of the typeface for the
titles, a talk through the film for sound with Chris and John, and then
Rita's ADR work. On Friday I came back from London, and as I pottered
around the house over the weekend I realised that something felt
different. And then I figured out what it was - for the first time in
at least a year, the film wasn't on my mind. I had grown accustomed to
thinking about it, mulling over every little niggle for so long that it
had become a way of life. Sometimes it felt as if the film was the
largest single thought I ever carried in my head - maybe it's something
like what a chess master might feel in a game. My brain - I know this
sounds odd - actually felt light. I had a break ahead of me until the
two week dub . Work continued, of course with the picture conform
of the computer edit, sound work and so on. After the dub, work would
carry on with grading and the blow-up. But creatively I was home
free. Any decisions remaining were mechanical. For better or worse, it
I was aware around this time that my time to think was running out. I
knew that once Rachel gave birth my life would go into a spin of
befuddlement so at every spare moment I wrote. I used my time before
the dub to work on the script of MOTHERSHIP and revising drafts of an
outline for THE WISH. I planned on stopping this absolute self-obsessed
devotion to thought and writing when life held up a stop sign called
When the dub came it was incredibly boring - not least because I was in
such safe hands there was little I could do in that dark theatre
sitting in the cosy chair but doze off. I was working with the very
charming Robin O'Donoghue and his assistant Dominic Lester and as I sat
near Robin he explained the dubbing habits of other directors. Alan
Parker, apparently brings in a deck of cards and plays patience. James
Merchant falls asleep. The latter proved to be my route. I was
occasionally reprimanded by the ever vigilant John - "do try to stay
awake Martin" I'd hear every now and then and my head would jerk
upright. As my mentor, John also set me straight on an issue I was
dodging during the dub. There had been some debate over how a piece of
music was to be used and I said that Robin should discuss the matter
with the composer Stephen McKeon. John respectfully took me aside and
said the decision was mine and I duly took the responsibility. The
sound for the film was Dolby stereo surround and I kept wanting Robin
to have sound effects coming from the back of the cinema. He rightly
put the brakes on my excesses but didn't always convince me - to this
day in one of the graveyard scenes I hear a flap of crow wings behind
me and I apologise to Robin again.
After the dub there was great frustration for me. The film was
finished, but not all in one piece. I'd seen the eyes in the back of
the head and the spaceship zap and indeed the opening sequence grading
on 35mm as done by Peter Govey. But the Super 16mm picture
conform could only be run with the rough mix, while the final mix could
only be run with the projected video cut and neither version contained
the 35mm special effects. It would be late January before I flew into
an icy Heathrow and took the short taxi ride to Technicolor Labs to see
the first full graded print but without sound. Weeks later, when John
had finished haranguing the excellent grader Peter Ferrari, the first
full combined optical print was ready to be seen. Various members of
the clan gathered in a viewing facility in Soho to watch the film reel
by reel. At the end there was applause. During the screening (and it
can happen to me to this day) there were times when I cried. So much
emotions were bound up in the film for me - the autobiographical
elements and the sheer volume of work and devotion from so many people
to get it up on the screen. With whatever reservations I or others
might have about it, the film was the best it could possibly be.
In the spirit of openness in which I've written this book, I would now
like to list the director's top ten grievances with the film;
1. I have to avert my eyes now on the shot of Harry
stunned in the cinema foyer - there's a boy walking past him who stares
fixedly into the camera.
2. Why in God's name didn't I think of a reprise of
the usher joke with Liam Heffernan at the end of the film when all the
kids go wild in the cinema?
3. There's a boy in the cinema who comes into view
when Harry steps out of frame away from Sean and I wish I could
digitally remove him and his limp applause.
4. The shot of Rita mopping the livingroom floor and
the dance-hall sized corporation house. What can I say?
5. I should have shot a closer reaction of Harry in
the 'real' fight when he looks down to see Mucker isn't watching him.
In rehearsals I had made a note of this, but I forgot to note it in my
6. When I was shooting Harry's soliloquy at his
father's grave I halted James in the middle of the first take because I
felt he was speaking with too much emotion and I wanted him to tell the
story as if it held no emotion for him. I wish I'd had the intelligence
to let him go through with a take his own way.
7. On a number of occasions I would be happy with one
take if it worked as I wanted. This later created problems for John in
one particular way - he was often pressed to get reaction shots. In
future if I was happy with a first take I'd go again and ask the actors
simply to explore and extend their reactions to lines.
8. The film is grossly underpopulated. I wish we'd
had the budget for bigger school, cinema and street crowds.
9. Harry has too many changes of clothes and is
too clean. This was caused mainly because I didn't grasp what was going
on until too late when I put an embargo on other changes of clothes.
10. The greatest mystery of all to me and a constant
irritant when I watch the film with an audience; Uncle Tony's last line
- which I always thought was pretty mediocre - gets huge hoots of
laughter which drown out the all-important line which follows from
Harry. If we'd shown the film to a test audience I would have learned
this. Comedy is a very unpredictable business.
OUT IN THE WORLD
I would say that the biggest effect the making of the film had on me
was to create a focus for my passion. In my years as a writer I had
very often written something and quickly saw its flaws so acutely that
I put it aside and never presented it to the world. As an editor, it's
part of the job to work at something and then be willing to change it
or let go of ideas. THE BOY FROM MERCURY, however, had little short of
my blood coursing through it. Maybe it was because of the money
involved. Maybe it was because of all the work and love I'd seen go
into it. But I was bonded to the film as a parent to a child and would
not be deterred in my hunger to have it take its rightful place as a
successful and above all seen film.
Appropriately, the first screening of the film was for the cast and
crew who had made it. The Savoy One was booked for Sunday morning
February 18th at eleven. The crowds of familiar faces poured in as I
greeted them. Rachel, heavily pregnant, stood with me for a while and
then went inside to sit with John Victor Smith and his wife Elaine who
had come over for the event as they wouldn't be available for the
premiere in the Dublin Film Festival. I introduced the film, saying
that this was probably the friendliest audience the film would ever
have and urging people to enjoy a film they had all shared in making.
The lights went down and the curtains parted. Up on that wonderful huge
screen came the opening credits and I sat back knowing that the film
would indeed be enjoyed.
Afterwards there was applause and celebration. The film works. I know
it does. When I got home following drinks and a meal with John and
Elaine I was walking on clouds.
As a writer I am given, naturally, to flights of fancy. In days of yore
when I looked to the time when the film was done I envisioned a
situation where the film would be on Irish cinema screens and on sale
in video stores for Christmas. I assumed that it would then fan out to
England and the States and that people would flock to it because it was
such a warm, funny and moving film. After the cast and crew screening I
felt that these reveries were justified. An experience a few days later
brought me crashing back to reality.
Sitting in Screen One of the Irish Film Centre, I watched the film this
time with less than a dozen people - the representatives of Ireland's
Film Distributors. It was a soul destroying experience. I think that in
the entire film there was one laugh (later attributed to Neil Connolly
of the Lighthouse cinema). Afterwards Brendan McCaul of Buena Vista
said the film was a credit to me but unmarketable because it wasn't
aimed at a young or old audience. It drives me crazy to this day that
adults in his position have the notion that other adults don't want to
see a film about children. Haven't a lot of us been children? Don't a
lot of us bring children into the world? Isn't anyone interested in
going to a cinema with their children to watch the story of a boy who
doesn't open up his world to adults? Don't a lot of us remember feeling
the same way as children? Doesn't anyone want to sit back and watch a
nostalgic film about a Dublin gone by? Am I the only sentimentalist in
the entire world? Is sex, violence and the disgraceful blood-is-funny
mind set of Quentin Tarantino the only cinema that people want to see?
What I would later come to realise was that Irish distributors have had
it easy for so long by working in a void that they don't know how to
deal with an Irish film industry. For decades all they've done is take
in the posters, trailers, prints and pre-publicity from American or
English films and then have only the task of putting ads in the papers
and prints on screens to earn their money. Then along comes a flourish
of film activity in Ireland and they have to think about how a film is
marketed. So what do they do? They pass.
With no takers for the Irish market I pinned my hopes on the world
outside and when the film was shown in market screenings at the Berlin
Film Festival I waited for word back of sales. Word didn't come. Or at
least, the word I wanted to hear didn't come. Instead, people were
saying that it was a lovely film but it wasn't big enough to market.
This was a new wall - because there were no big names, it couldn't
compete with the Hollywood giants. What I knew the film needed was a
champion. But there was no sign of one.
The premiere of the film drew nearer as the Dublin Film Festival began.
Rachel was due to give birth a few days before the start of the
festival but there was no sign of the happy event. The countdown to the
premiere began as the days Rachel went over mounted. In the midst of
frantic arrangements about a venue for a party after the film and a way
of celebrating the film with my family, I watched and Rachel waited to
no avail. Baby wasn't ready yet.
The film's screening date was March 14th. With a perfect sense of irony
on behalf of fate and our baby-to-be, Rachel came home from a film
outing with a friend on the night of Friday March 9th and said the
labour had begun. The days that followed are still a traumatic blur for
me. Rachel was determined to have a home birth - whereas I hadn't even
been present at the hospital births of my two sons. As hours turned to
days with the midwife Anne and our friend Catherine I was climbing the
walls with stress and worry. Sleep was an occasional luxury - I reckon
I slept eight hours over three nights. Finally, at two in the morning
on Tuesday March 12th our baby made her first appearance out of the
bloodied birthing pool. In a hysterical sense of heightened emotion I
had a hand resting in the waters when I felt a tiny grip on my little
finger - our baby holding my hand. I flooded into tears.
I couldn't sleep that night with excitement and this made me a
completely incompetent aid the next night as Rachel needed my help but
I kept falling asleep. Two days after Ellen's birth I was in Savoy One
with a packed audience of about eight hundred introducing the film to -
among all gathered - my family of brothers and sisters, some of whom
had flown in from England and Canada for the event. In the foyer before
the film I stood showing photos of my daughter. I almost burst into
tears when I looked around to see my son Bernard suddenly returned from
San Francisco for the event. In my speech - which Noelette tried to
relay back to Rachel via her mobile phone - I explained that my family
and Rachel's parents had gathered for the event and proudly announced
the news of Rachel's premiere and our daughter Ellen Florence. I don't
think I'm wrong in remembering that the screening was a magical one
with emotion in the audience heightened by watching a family film at
such an intense time of family for me. Looking back now I wish I could
remember the night more clearly, but I was still in a kind of haze.
As the film ended and the lights went up I was staggered by the
applause. Martin Mahon brought me down to introduce the cast, crew and
producers present. I called out names as I stood in the spotlight but
only a few people came down - including the tiny boy James Hickey. With
not many down with me to take the applause I walked us away - only to
discover afterwards that because the cinema was so full people like
Marina, Jo and Sylvaine were still struggling along rows to get to the
aisle when I drew a close to the gathering before the audience.
There was a party later which I enjoyed mostly because my family were
being brought together for once by celebration rather than bereavement.
I strolled home alone in the small hours to Rachel and Ellen and I was
still so hyped that I couldn't sleep. Instead I sat in the back garden
smoking one of the cigars Noelette had given me and raising a glass to
the starry sky for granting me my wishes. My film was out there and
people liked it. I was a father again. My life was in a huge, magical
state of upheaval. I had enough money to be modestly secure for a year
and get on with writing and developing a new film. And I was happier
and more complete than I had ever felt before.
It was the most extraordinary week of my life.
In late April the film opened the Limerick Film Festival and I drove
down for an overnight stay. To my delight the cinema was full and the
audience - consisting largely of college students - enjoyed the film
thoroughly. A few common and intriguing responses to the film had begun
to emerge. Just about everyone related to the 'Planet Happy Family'
scene where Harry visits Sean's home. It would seem that many people
share my childhood sense that it was the other kid who had the ideal
home. The music was something that people were moved and excited by.
People thought James was remarkable and that Hugh had shown a new side
to his acting skills. And Tom and Rita were almost unanimously accepted
for their accents. It was satisfying indeed to be the focus for such
praise and it was great to sit with an audience and hear them laugh or
sniffle their way through the film.
The ultimate purpose of making a film, in my opinion, is to get a
chance to make another film. I had set up a new film company, Apollo
Films, with David Whelan and by May we had a production loan promise
for my next film MOTHERSHIP. The Cannes Film Festival approached and as
THE BOY FROM MERCURY was to be in market screenings it seemed
imperative to go there. David convinced me that the trip to Cannes
could be stretched to include a family holiday and so we set off with
Rachel and Ellen when the time came. Rachel had lived for several years
in France and had many friends there. She was able to organise a
cheaply rented beautiful house in the south of France and she would go
to friends in Marseilles while I worked in Cannes with David. Then we
would meet up and go for our holiday.
The market screenings were moderately attended and brought minor sales.
There was, of all things, an enquiry about theatrical release in Hong
Kong and a TV sale to Australia. One advantage to having three
producers on the film became apparent however because as David and I
tramped Le Croisette for meetings we time and time again came upon
production company representatives who had seen the film. A great boost
in this also was my agent Val Hoskins - introduced to me by Jo back in
the turbulent times when I needed an agent to negotiate a deal with
Mercurian Productions which would keep my rights intact.
As I worked with David in Cannes he made me aware of an extraordinary
change that had taken place in my character. Years before I had been
the shy wallflower at a Media '92 event. Now I was in there doing cold
calls and pitches and drawing on long lost experience as a salesman to
push my next film and make an impression. It was all natural to me
because I had simply lost my inhibitions and grown in confidence. It
was the old scene from "The Godfather" again. My hand was steady and I
took to the work naturally. I hope I'm not a pain, but if I want
something now I'm not going to be afraid to go for it.
I have never been a great traveller and before the film I had seen
little of the world. Margo Harkin had once joked to me "make a film and
see the world" and the month after Cannes I was flown to Seattle for
the first American screening of the film. I was in the city for only
three days. On the morning before the screening I became aware that
there might be a problem with the dialogue when I told the people in
the hospitality area that I wanted to go out and mooch. Their reaction
was one of shock. It turned out that 'mooch' - meaning in Dublin to
wander around - meant to beg for money in the States. In the
evening when I arrived with Marina for the screening I was greeted by
the sight of a queue around the block. I was told that it was the first
complete sell-out of the festival.
After making my little speech - in which I referred to the hope that
the film wouldn't seem like a foreign language film - the cinema
darkened and I sat back to watch and listen as the Americans reacted.
Straight off I was in for a surprise - the shot of the title of the
film got a laugh. Further down there were other unexpected reactions,
and in particular I had a sense that the highly trained audience got
the message that bit quicker than the film told it. The main thing
though was that the film was really enjoyed and the same elements
brought laughs and tears. Afterwards there were questions from the
audience and I enjoyed the exchange. Then I was taken away for a drink
by Lyall Bush, one of the Festival co-ordinators, who kindly called the
film the hit of the festival. He added that there was a reviewer
from Variety Magazine in the audience.
The next day I made a one-day trip to Los Angeles for meetings set up
to talk about MOTHERSHIP. Most of the meetings had been arranged by Val
Hoskins. It was an exercise in stamina but also an all-too-brief sneak
peek at the mecca of movies. Not that I was all that smart in handling
the task. My first two meetings were on Sunset Boulevard and by not
paying full attention to my list of meeting details I managed to get
lost on Sunset Boulevard, walking a few miles out of the city in search
of 9929 - finally knowing I was sunk when I reached 15000. A halted
police car helped me by phoning a cab and I looked again at my meetings
details. The meeting was to take place at 9229 Sunset Boulevard! I'd
passed the building an hour and a half before and nearly fried in the
midday sun. The agent I was meeting there was already on the way
to another meeting but talked with me for a while as I sat in a
sweat-drenched shirt and guzzled water. It was then lunch time and I
went across the street to the 'Hamburger Restaurant' where I drank more
fluids and ate chips. As I sat there I realised that of course I was in
a movie watering hole. I picked up snips of conversation; the three
movie execs who chatted about the studio system and referred to some
promotion as 'gold handcuffs'. My favourites, however, were the loud
and funny elderly pair who appeared to be two agents. They saw an
attractive woman with a baby and were asking her what she was doing.
"Sally Duwawling you were the best!" they called after her as she left.
Later someone entered the restaurant and the man pointed this out to
the woman who leapt to her feet. He called out "We know them very
well!" as she made her way across the room to say hello.
I went on then - using cabs to avoid any further energy loss - to the
MGM building. The first thing that struck me was that it didn't have a
reception - just an underground car park with elevators to a lobby some
floors up. I finally went to Fox City (driven there by the only white
American cab driver I'd come across. He was listening to a talk radio
programme which was full of vitriol and hate and he chuckled away).
In the end nothing came of the meetings - there's a huge meetings to
results ratio in the business but also Val Hoskins had advised me that
the Americans don't want you until you're in demand. You can't actually
sell yourself to them. Realising that I would be interested in doing
business with them - and in selling myself - says a lot about how
hungry I've become to stay making movies.
After my return to Seattle I flew home to Dublin and shortly afterwards
got the exciting news from Jo Manuel that the Variety review was out
and it was brilliant. The opening line called it "a gem of a film from
Ireland" and the closing line predicted that it would be picked up for
distribution. I was ecstatic. I could also see an irony looming; the
film would be released in America before Ireland. At this stage too Jo
had confirmed an English distributor after all the news of companies
turning the film down. Joe D'Morais of Blue Dolphin had seen the film
and loved it. To my great relief the film had finally reached someone
who believed in it, and Joe had set to work on preparing a publicity
path for the film, planning to release it in England for the end of
The world is awash with film festivals and while some turned the film
down others invited it in. So it was that at the end of July I went to
the Giffoni International Children's Film Festival in southern Italy.
Just before travelling I discovered that the selected films would be
viewed by a jury of two hundred children aged twelve to fourteen and
knew that they were probably the one audience who wouldn't take to the
film. I thought it was all going to be a terrible mistake and I was in
a state of frustration and dread as I flew to Rome and was collected
there for the long drive south to the festival. The heat during the day
was 37 degrees and so each day I would stay in the air conditioned
hotel until the evening events attached to the festival. Watching the
film with the Italian audience was a strange experience. The Canal Plus
print - with French subtitles - was being screened while Italian actors
spoke the lines and the film soundtrack was dipped except when music
was carrying a scene. Despite these layers of separation the film was
enjoyed. The following evening the awards were announced and the film
was a runner-up for the main jury prize. But I hadn't realised that the
journalists covering the event also awarded a prize - the Italian Film
Journalists Guild award - and was stunned to hear that THE BOY FROM
MERCURY was declared the winner. The film picked up yet another prize -
this one seemed to have been invented in the course of the festival -
from the Italian Film Distributors Association. I hadn't been handed a
prize since I was fifteen.
When I returned to Ireland I passed on the news to the Film Board and
spoke of facing a situation where the film would be released in Italy
and the UK but not in Ireland. At this stage I believe Rod contacted
Jane Doolan of Clarence Pictures - Ireland's only independent
distributor - and it was then I discovered that in fact Jane had every
intention of releasing the film. The news was great, and naturally I
offered to help in any way possible. One task I was able to deal with
was to edit a trailer for the film, and by October I had completed a
trailer which I had been told would run with every print of Neil
Jordan's "Michael Collins" screening in Ireland.
By then the film had also won another prize - a Special Commendation at
the Prix Europa.
A tidy conclusion to the story was in the making. Three years before,
in early December 1993, I had found out that the Film Board were going
to provide me with development funding for the script of THE BOY FROM
MERCURY. In the ensuing years I had been on the long road to Mercury
and now the film would reach Irish audiences. As this event loomed one
great debate returned - what was the audience for the film? Jane Doolan
took the view that this was a childrens' film and came up with a poster
which I hated - Harry in his Mercurian spacesuit with the spacehip
behind him. I felt that the image said one thing - childrens' sci-fi
film - and in so doing bypassed a huge part of the film's audience.
Jane, however, was convinced that she was right and was supported by
Marina and Rod. I had hoped that we could talk more about this but I
was away at festivals and came back to discover that the poster had
already gone to print. At the London Film Festival, meanwhile, the film
had played to an adult audience and gone down so well that Joe D'Morais
decided he would aim the film at an adult nostalgia audience.
The weeks leading up to the release of the film were extraordinary for
the Irish film industry. Neil Jordan's MICHAEL COLLINS broke all box
office records while in many venues trailers for THE VAN, THE LAST OF
THE HIGH KINGS, and THE BOY FROM MERCURY ran with it. For Irish
audiences it must have been quite a revelation. There really was such a
thing as Irish film. MERCURY was released on the weekend of
December 6th on seven screens - the UCIs in Tallaght and Coolock, the
Omni in Santry, the Virgin on Parnell Street, the Classic in Harold's
Cross (thanks to my old boss Albert Kelly), and multiplexes in Galway
and Cork. There was a decent amount of prepublicity, including a great
deal of support from RTE's 'The Movie Show' who ran a competition
around the film's release.
For a combination of personal and business reasons I was in the States
for the first week and a half of the release of the film. While I was
visiting my son Steve in Syracuse for his eighteenth birthday Rachel
sent me an email saying there were mixed reviews. I later discovered
that reviews ranged from the good to the indifferent. On my first night
in a hotel in Los Angeles I phoned Clarence Pictures and received the
news that the film had opened badly and was already being pulled in
Galway, Cork, and the Omni. By the time I got home to Dublin I
discovered that the film was having a reduced number of screenings in
the UCIs and Virgin. I knew that Albert would pull the film in the
Classic after the first week because he was already committed to other
films so that was no surprise.
The film dropped dead at the box office. To make matters worse, the
reduction in screenings meant that by Christmas it was showing once (at
midday) at the UCI in Tallaght, twice (at midday and two o'clock) at
UCI Coolock, and twice (in the afternoon) at the Virgin. There was no
scope for it to reach the audience of children on holidays at which it
had been aimed, and little scope for it to reach an adult audience. The
film was finished. The final nail in the coffin came on December 27th
when I opened the paper to find that the film had been pulled from both
UCIs. This meant that over the following two weeks when the childrens
audience were on holidays the film wouldn't be showing. Virgin were the
only cinema in town still showing the film.
I spent Christmas 1996 in a daze. Three years of my life down the tubes
in three weeks in Irish cinemas. Unimpressed Irish critics and
audiences meant that the jury was in and I had made a flop. The Irish
Film Board had invested in the film and then in its release. They would
receive nothing in return. Le Studio Canal Plus would surely look at
how the film performed in its home market and then shove it to the back
of their shelves. If I were to make another film, it wouldn't be with
the eager return of such investors to my work. Defeat - intolerable to
me and so awfult to taste - was the end of the road. I spent the
Christmas of 1996 in hiding as I had done in 1993. But for a new reason
- I was ashamed of walking around under the shadow of my failure.
James Taylor has a song called 'Sunny Skies' and it has the line
"wondering if where I've been is worth the things I've been through".
That's the question I ended with as 1996 drew to a close. Getting the
opportunity to make the film was my chance to shine and that hadn't
happened. I had learned many lessons, and the film had provided well
deserved opportunities for others to take on responsibilities and
display their talents. But this film which was my obsession - which
absorbed three years of my life with its highs and lows - would be
consigned to the dump bin of films. I am proud of it as I would be of a
child. I certainly don't accept all the criticisms levelled against it.
But I never would have believed that making the film would lead me
ultimately to such gloom. So much of my life is caught up in that film
- as an autobiographical story, as the consummation of a life's love of
film, and as three years hard work. And all that's left for me to do
now is to move on and find new roads.
I include this because it was written by someone very different from
the innocent who began this adventure in film.
December 11th 1996 and I sit in a hotel in Los Angeles. The view out my
window is of the rain sodden streets of Chinatown. This county is
traumatised by rain - one area where we Irish are experts. I am here on
a business trip which completes my work and travel for 1996. I miss my
home - I yearn to be with Rachel and Ellen and just be quiet for a
while in Dublin. There's every likelihood that I'll need to go to
Berlin next February for meetings during the film festival, but the way
I feel right now I don't want to step outside the front door of my home
I am in Los Angeles for two meetings that will hopefully bring a US
element to the deal which is shaping for MOTHERSHIP. While THE BOY FROM
MERCURY is unlikely to get a theatrical release here but may get a TV
sale, I have learned something vitally important about how the US
impacts on the world film market. A United States release is the
currency of how a film is judged in other territories. By this I mean
that a German or a Japanese pre-sale for MOTHERSHIP would rely heavily
on whether or not the film will have a US profile. People in the rest
of the world go to see the films that Americans have gone to see.
I remember that once, during the late stages of pre-production of
MERCURY, I was talking to legal adviser James Hickey and he said I was
on a steep learning curve. Well the curve since then has become a sheer
wall. I spent many years of my life reaching the stage where I got to
make my first feature film. The experience since is reminiscent of that
day mentioned earlier in the book when I was hiking with my son Steve
and we climbed up a steep and difficult path to reach a car park. I am
here at a point where I find that there is an ordinariness to the work
of making films just as there was to being a postman or even ultimately
to film editing. I don't include writing in this disillusionment simply
because writing has no floor or ceiling to audience size to validate
its merit. Because it has no overheads.
A film should aspire to attracting a sufficient audience to either
return or justify the investment needed to make it.
This is a law I believe in but which would be highly contentious in at
least an Irish context. It probably represents the scale of my
ambition. It may even represent the scale of my avarice. Nevertheless,
it's what I believe. When I look back on making my first feature film I
look back on a journey which led me to a new level at which I found
something other than I had expected. I found a cold, hard business.
I now have notions about this business and what it takes to make a
film. I've even wound up with a list of conclusions from the experience
of this year that I'm willing to set out here;
1 This is a relationship-based business where trust
2 More often than not it's the deal rather than the
script that decides if a film will get made.
3 You get only one shot with a script so don't show
it until it has been worked to the best it can be.
4 Sending cold faxes, making cold calls and sending
cold scripts are all a waste of
5 I have the good fortune to now have proof that I
can direct a feature film. How that film was
financed was a complete fluke or miracle.
6 A project that would get financed immediately would
have the following ingredients in
order of importance;
(A) An identifiable and quantifiable market.
(B) Leading cast that will 'open' in the US.
(C) A good script.
(D) A budget in keeping with scope for profit or
minimum risk for investors.
(E) A team who can be trusted to make a film and
deliver a professional end product that gets good
reviews and is perceived as something to be proud of
7 A producer is the broker between what a film maker
dreams and what a market can accomodate. That being so, a producer is
the conduit between the possible and the wonderful (or insane, or
egotistical, or impossible, or barely plausible etc...) The producer,
therefore, must understand the TRUE limits of film making reality so
that no film maker with a possible dream is denied the chance of
self-expression. So while in the past I would have thought that
producing is a means to an end, I now see that role as THE means to an
end. Sadly, producers may spend their lives packaging deals as opposed
to financing films just so they get to make a living.
8 This is an insane business.
9 The most insane person in this business is the
director, on whom descends all the needs and insanities of the project
and who must turn all that into a film which emerges plausible and
structured at the other end of the roller coaster.
10 If you get to make a film you.....
...have freedom that people in steady jobs don't
seem to have from your perspective because film is your way of
...create employment for yourself and others.
...leave behind on the planet a document of yourself.
...hopefully have fun.
Conventiently for these delusions of comprehension there are ten
headings. A reader may respond to the above with horror or
interest. I have not come to these conclusions lightly nor have I
any reason to present them as easily palatable opinions. I certainly
don't find them all palatable myself.
Ireland is a small country with the good blessing of a government
policy that wishes to support a film industry. It is impossible,
however, to finance a film of anything more than very modest scale -
while paying people a living wage - through funds in this country
alone. So the next place to look is where - England? Yes, there's money
in England. And the task of contending with an agenda of what works for
the English market as a story. The lucky route there is a TV presale
from BBC, ITV or Channel Four. If the project doesn't jump through the
right hoops in those quarters then it may never be realised.
Then there are potential investors within Europe but even a film like
THE BOY FROM MERCURY which is fully funded that way will fail to return
its investment if the film doesn't carry some weight in the crucial
barometer of market value - the US of A. This offers two solutions;
re-educate the film audience outside America, or go with the flow and
use America as the entertainment imprimatur it has come to respresent.
My own response would be to go with the latter. The horse has bolted so
find innovative uses for an empty stable.
If MOTHERSHIP comes together it will have money from Ireland through
Section 35 and the Irish Film Board. It will have money from Germany
and/or Canada which will be bolstered by state support for film in
those countries. It will have 'bridging finance' from a sales agent who
will predict the market for the film based on its cast and genre. The
sales agent, however, will want to know that there will be a US profile
for the film and so a distributor of some sort (theatrical or other
media) in the US will be involved. With all those ingredients in place
I'll get a chance to make a more ambitious film for a greater amount of
money. If that happens and the enterprise works I'll get to make more
films. That's the new road I choose. It's a road which has led a
working class lad from Crumlin in Dublin to sit in a hotel in Los
Angeles pondering ways to finance the realising of his stories so that
he can have his cake and eat it; aiming to make films that earn money
for himself and others while also being of value. The future will tell
on which side of that scale my work fell. I have mixed feelings about
the road that brought me here, but no one can turn back time so this is
my life. This is where my dream led and it's not what I ever expected.
Be careful what you wish because it might come true.
THE STORY OF THE SCRIPT
In the beginning was the idea. I had a sense from the moment the idea
struck me that it was special and in the year and half of writing work
on it I learned more about the craft than I had learned in the previous
As a writer, I'd never broken through. Over the years, my writing
credits mounted with a series of minor achievements - radio plays,
sci-fi novels, the two early TV plays, and a few other ventures that
brought me little or no attention. The majority of my output had
consisted of unsold screenplays and unpublished novels. For what it's
worth, I believe my strongest literary achievement to date is a gut
wrenching exercise in self exploration called 'Thirteen Tracks'
which began around the death of my mother and in the midst of which I
spewed up a children's sci-fi thriller named MOTHERSHIP which in the
end taught me that I was born to plot and not the mastery of prose. But
for all my explorations of the universe and the depths of my soul, it
was a simple story from my childhood that I sensed was going to finally
help me make the break into a new life. This feeling was very important
- I had strong faith in the story, and this was tested many times. In
retrospect if I had been in any way tepid in my commitment to the story
I might well have given up in the face of disappointments or critical
responses to the script.
One last point I would make before proceeding with the story of the
script is that in the light of the experience gained writing it I now
have set far higher standards for myself with my new work. I've written
two scripts since THE BOY FROM MERCURY. One - THE WISH - has been
through several outlines and six drafts before I felt ready to show it
to possible cast or investors. The other, MOTHERSHIP, having gone
through the stages of being a novel and a radio serial, went again to
outline and then three script drafts before reaching the same point.
You get one chance with your script and unless it has been thoroughly
developed you don't stand a chance of getting even the minimum response
of someone making comments about it and being willing to see a new
The step-outline of a film is the template of the script. It's the
bones to which flesh and blood will be added. To extend this simile
into the gruesome, it gets very messy if you want to rearrange a body
after you've added the flesh and blood, so the skeleton merits a lot of
thought before going any further. What follows is the step outline I'd
arrived at after taking on board comments made by friends and
colleagues, and also putting my mind to strengthening the story.
What can't be conveyed unless I were to include every screenplay draft
is the way that the adding or altering of dialogue could throw more
light on a character or plot plot point.
1 The starry sky. We find HARRY CRONIN looking up
with his head out the window of his bedroom. He smiles. From his point
of view we now see and object with flashing red and white lights appear
over the roof of the house. Harry flashes alternate green and white
from his torch. Run opening credits.
2 Harry hears footsteps coming up the stairs and he
scampers back in from the window. He has been lying along the foot of
the bed with pillows propped on the opened window. He shuts the window
and gets back into bed, barely waking his sleeping dog MAX. Harry's
MOTHER enters and shivers. She looks at Harry and knows he's not
sleeping. She takes Max out of the bed and leaves the room. Harry opens
his eyes and whispers "goodnight, Earth Mother".
3 The school is a vast grey building. In Harry's
classroom BROTHER DOWDALL, a red faced dour man, is leading the class
through a recitation of 'The old woman of the Roads'. We find Harry and
MUCKER MAGUIRE among the faces. Dowdall writes on the blackboard and
informs his pupils he has eyes in the back of his head. Harry stares
and a pair of eyes open in the back of the Brother's head. Then the
level of rowdiness rises and Brother spins around, throwing the chalk.
It hits Harry on the head.
4 Teatime in the Cronin household and we meet Harry's
family. His mother is drab and quiet. His seventeen year old screaming
sister MARY complains about everything, hates having the dog near the
table, and is annoyed by the slightest sound Harry makes when eating.
His nineteen year old brother PAUL, a Cliff Richard clone, has a big
quiff of hair and a deep Dublin voice. He is gangly and awkward,
with bits of toilet on his chine where he'd cut himself shaving. Paul
wants ice cream after the meal but there's none. He tells Harry to go
down to the shop and with no support from his mother Harry must obey
and storms out of the house.
5 Harry walks down the road with Max trailing along.
Harry is talking out loud, having a heated argument with his brother.
He grits his teeth and threatens to kill his brother, then has an
imaginary fight with him. Cut to a wide shot of the corporation road as
Harry swings his fists and beats up his big brother.
6 A great cheer rises from the rowdy horde of boys in
the local fleapit (cinema) as the shrill music and opening titles
herald a new episode of the follyer-upper starring CHUCK SOLAR. Chuck
is in a punch-up with four strange assailants from Planet Quarg. When
Chuck fights he grits his teeth. We see Harry in the audience, also
gritting his teeth.
7 Boys flood out of the cinema shooting each other
and grappling with each other as the weary ushers land the occasional
clip on a nearby ear. Harry is out on the street, gritting his teeth
and watching the other boys pass him by. He reaches a public park near
the cinema and rattles the small wooden stick he treasures (which he
has carved into a sort of laser gun) along the railings as he runs.
8 Mount Jerome cemetery and its ancient vaults.
Harry, dressed up in his short trousered suit and best shirt and tie,
walks along with his mother. He eyes the vaults suspiciously and as he
passes one a slimy black claw tries to reach out. He quickens his step
and his mother tells him not to fall. They arrive at the pristine grave
of his father where Harry says prayers and helps to place fresh
flowers. "Tell your father you're being a good boy," his mother
instructs and Harry does so. He gazes at the photo of his father laid
into the headstone.
9 At home, Harry wanders into the kitchenette to find
Paul playing a Shadows record and practising their steps. Paul halts
and hides his embarrassment with rage. "What are you lookin' at?" Harry
slopes away and goes to the bedroom.
10 Harry and Max are under the covers of his bed as
he shines a torch under his face and tells a creepy story. Harry starts
seeing shapes indented in the blankets and grabs Max for protection,
then whips back the blankets. All is normal. He begins preparations for
his nightly signal to the flashing lights.
11 The unconscious Chuck Solar, trapped by the evil
EMPEROR CHANG, is tied up in chains and nailed into a box. Then he is
lowered into a vat of boiling oil until the box sizzles and drowns. Up
comes the caption and dramatic voice - "Is this the end of Chuck
Solar?" Harry is shocked.
12 Harry walks alone among the boys teeming out of
the cinema. He is lost in thought when a boy running past shoots him.
Harry is taken by surprise and the boy smiles. This is SEAN. Sean
shoots again and Harry clutches his chest. Sean runs away and Harry
runs after him. They run into the park and begin an escapade of
shooting and playing.
13 Heading home, Harry talks with great concern about
Chuck Solar. This has to be the end for him. Sean dismisses all this
and slags the serial. Making up outlandish versions of what will happen
next he says that next week the serial will start with Chuck waking up,
breaking free of his chains, and firing the rocket in his boots to
spring out of the box. Annoyed by this jeering Harry shoots but Sean,
who is walking along a wall, doesn't fall. When Harry protests
and Sean says "you missed me". Finally Harry takes out his wooden laser
gun and aims at Sean and says "by the power of Mercury dar dar". Sean
falls convincingly and Harry goes to him, impressed. Sean is clutching
his chest and removes his hand to reveal blood. The boys look at each
other, roar in horror, and run away in opposite directions. Harry
throws the gun away.
14 Harry dashes to his house and bangs on the door
impatiently. When Mam opens he barges in and rushes upstairs with Max.
He explains to Max that he has used his secret power to shoot a boy and
the gardai (police) will be looking for him. They hurriedly pack a bag
of essentials like the torch, a jumper, and bags of broken biscuits and
sweets hidden around the bed. Then they run away.
15 Harry has a hiding place in a grove of bushes. He
and Max hide there, waiting for dark when he can contact the Mercurians
and be taken away before he brings complete disgrace to his home planet.
16 At home, mother realises Harry is missing and
sends Paul and Mary out to look for him. They both groan about this -
they're getting ready to go out. But mother insists.
17 All the food has been eaten and it isn't nearly
dark yet. Harry, talking things over with Max, decides that running
away will only bring further disgrace to the Mercurians and so he must
go home and accept his punishment.
18 Harry drags his heels as he arrives near his road.
He is snapped out of his misery by the roars of his screaming sister
who drags him back to the house. "You'll be killed" Mary says. "I know"
harry replies. When the front door opens Harry puts his hands up but
there are no Gardai waiting, just his diner still heating on the pot.
19 Harry has his head out the bedroom window, looking
up at the mostly cloudy sky and waiting for the light. He glimpses it
through the cloud and flashes his torch red but the light disappears
behind cloud again.
20 Harry stands ashen faced before his father's
grave. Hi mother say "tell your father you're being a good boy" but
Harry can't say the words. His mother coaxes and cajoles, getting upset
about doing the best she can to raise the boy on her own, and Harry
finally relents. "I'm being a good boy," he says to the grave - and the
earth heaves. Harry runs away.
21 Everyone else tucks into dinner but Harry can't
eat. His mother is concerned for him and wonders if she shouldn't go to
bingo. Paul (because he's going to babysit with his girlfriend
Sarah) insists that his mother go out.
22 Paul is sitting on the sofa with SARAH watching
the black and white TV. He is trying to make a pass at her but not
23 Harry sits at the open window of the bedroom. The
sky is heavy with rain. He sees by the alarm clock that the time for
sending a message is past. A claw scrapes the window just as Harry
closes it. Then he hears footsteps coming up the stairs. Harry hops
into bed with Max with Max and closes his eyes. The steps halt outside
the door. Harry opens his eyes. He hears deep breathing. Then the door
begins to distort and bulge. Harry croak "Daddy! Daddy!. He hears
growling and he bolts upright, screaming his head off. Footsteps speed
up the stairs. Paul and Sarah burst in. Harry is frantic and Sarah
consoles him. Paul is dismissive and orders his brother back to sleep.
24 The TV is on. Harry sits on the sofa between Paul
and Sarah, Sarah cuddling him. Paul is fuming.
25 Harry is sitting on the railings of his front
garden, talking to himself about his plight and looking up at the sky.
He doesn't notice his sister cycling home until the last second and she
screams at him for talking to himself. She goes into the house and
complains to her mother about Harry. "Leave the child alone," Mam
responds, but she is concerned.
26 Harry is listlessly doing his homework when he
hears the dread sound of the lambretta scooter. Max reacts too, and
they both try to hurry out the back door. But Mam arrives with Uncle
Tony, who as usual is dressed in his mid-length leather coat, goggle,
and round head helmet. "God bless all beer!" he declares.
27 Uncle Tony brings Harry and Max to the Phoenix
Park. Harry is exasperated by his constant word play and chummy ways.
He is furious when Uncle Tony throws a stick in the pond and Max
slavishly jumps in after it.
28 Afterwards in the pub Uncle Tony wants to chat
"eyeball to youball". Harry's mother has explained that something's
wrong, and as his father's brother Tony tries to awkwardly to find out
what's going on. He fails, and gets jarred (drunk) in the process.
29 The Lambretta scooter weaves its way along the
corporation roads home.
30 Harry can't resist going to the cinema to find out
what"s happened to Chuck Solar. As the follyer-upper starts, the
chained and unconscious Chuck Solar is lowered in the box into the
boiling oil. Cutting inside, Chuck awakes and at the last instant fires
up the rockets in his boots to leap free. Harry is baffled.
31 Harry is sneaking out of the cinema when Sean
catches up with him. Harry nearly leap out of his skin but Sean
explains that he fell on glass. Harry is unconvinced and takes Sean to
the park as he explains his big secret. Harry explains that he is in
fact from Planet Mercury and has been sent to observe life on Earth. He
used his secret power to shoot Sean and has vowed never to use it
again. Harry explains that he has such powers as being able to
see into the future and make cars turn corners. Sean is unconvinced.
32 Sean brings Harry to his home - a privately owned
three bedroom house - and there the boy is presented with blessed
normality; a nice young FATHER and MOTHER, and a BROTHER and
SISTER around Sean's age. Harry is enthralled by all this, and is
on his best manners when he sits down to tea with them. He starts
making up a revised version of his family in answer to the parents
33 The next time Sarah comes to babysit she brings a
gift for Harry and keeps him up late playing snakes and ladders. Paul
seethes while Harry is delighted .
34 For a moment it seems Chuck Solar is throttling
Paul as Sarah stands back thanking him. But no. We're back in the
cinema and Harry is cheering on his hero. Sean sits with him.
35 Talking with his pal Sean, Harry asks if he can
stay at his house that night as he's afraid that Sarah, who would
otherwise be babysitting him with Paul, is falling in love with Harry.
Sean is happy to agree.
36 "I have a friend," Harry explains and his mother
doesn't know how to react. She fussily packs all kinds of unnecessary
things for the overnight stay while asking questions about the family
to which Harry gives answers of ever greater imagination.
37 Night time in Sean's bedroom, and Harry is
explaining about the Mercury spacecraft which makes contact with him.
The boys look out the window as the time approaches, but Harry isn't
sure where to expect the lights. "They pass right over my house," he
explains. He sees the lights and flashes - green and white - as
they flash back red and white. Sean reckons it's an airplane - that all
airplanes have red and white lights. "Did you ever see them flash green
and white?" he asks. Harry gets angry with him and sulks as he goes to
38 Next day, Harry sets out to prove his powers. He
stares at Sean's father who is reading the Sunday paper, sending a
thought that he has an itchy ear. The man scratches his ear. Sean says
this is just a coincidence, and Harry runs away in a furious rage.
39 Tears run down Harry's face as he runs home.
40 Back with Max in his bedroom, Harry pours the
wrath of Mercury on Sean swearing he will never talk to him again.
41 In school, Harry is asked a question about the
counties of Munster and can't remember all the names. Brother Dowdall
asks other boys and no one gets the answer right - Mucker Maguire is
among the boys who can't answer the question.
42 Coming home from school, Harry is surprised and
pleased to see Sean at the top of the road waiting for him. The two
walk and talk. Sean says Harry has a great imagination - which Harry
denies. Sean then accepts that Harry can think what he likes - he still
wants them to be friends. Harry is pleased and brings Sean home.
43 Harry introduces Sean to his
(Earth) mother. She is very awkward about having such a well spoken boy
in the house and is mortified by dirt everywhere. Sean also meets Max.
They are going to go out for a walk when Sean freezes - he sees Mucker
Maguire passing by with his gang. Sean explains that Mucker stole his
sweets and comics once and Sean is afraid of him.
44 In class, Mucker is taking a copybook out of his
desk when he notices a note written in red. Brother Dowdall
notices that Mucker isn't paying attention and is heading for him with
the leather strap when the boy shows the note. It reads "you are a
robber. You will die if you bully my friend. Signed Mercury Man." The
brother demands to know who wrote the note and invokes the sacred
crucifix above the blackboard as he asks each boy in turn if they wrote
the note. Harry's turn comes. Christ lifts his head and stares at
Harry. He confesses to the note and faints.
45 In the schoolyard boys commiserate with Harry for
getting two hundred lines - "I must never threaten God's given life" -
and six slaps. Then the shape-throwing Mucker comes along with his pals
and pushes Harry around. The young BROTHER QUINN comes along and gives
Mucker a clout. When the brother departs, however, Mucker tells Harry
they must face each other in a fight next day at school or else Harry
will be known as a yellow belly.
46 The umpteenth page of a copybook. Harry writes the
"I' down the page, then the 'must'. He halts from his labours and gazes
out the window.
47 In black and white we see Harry and Mucker square
up to each other. Harry warns Mucker for his own safety not to proceed
with the fight. Mucker pushes Harry again and the sky darkens. A huge
spaceship is above them. It zaps Mucker, who disappears to the
amazement of all the boys around him. The boys hoist Harry on their
shoulders as the spaceship departs.
48 Back to the real world. The field throngs with
boys as Harry makes his way into the heart of the crowd to face Mucker.
As the pushing and shoving starts, Harry keeps looking up at the sky.
Finally Mucker halts and looks up. In a moment of inspired desperation,
Harry punches Mucker and runs away.
49 That night, Harry is being extra nice to his Earth
mother., brother and sister. He sets his brother's slippers by the
fire, washes up after dinner and apologises to his screaming sister for
calling her a cow once behind her back. Then he writes a letter to his
two oldest brothers in London, explaining he had been wrong for not
writing to them in the previous two years.
50 Harry has his head out the window waiting for the
Mercurian ship. When it appears he flashes red on his torch. It flashes
back red and white but doesn't come down for him. He slinks miserably
back into bed - he has been left to die at the hands of Mucker Maguire.
51 Later, Paul comes to bed. He notices that Harry is
crying. "What's wrong with you?" he barks. Harry says nothing's wrong.
52 Next day Harry is lying sick in bed when Uncle
Tony blusters in. Why won't Harry go to school? His Mammy is terrible
worried. Uncle Tony does his awful best to cheer Harry up. Harry rests
his hand solemnly on the man's shoulder. "Uncle Tony, you are a very
53 Uncle Tony goes back to the mother and is
flummoxed. "That boy needs a father," he concludes.
54 Evening time and Harry sits on his bed beside a
tray of uneaten food. He hears a knock at the front door and his Mam
tells him Sean is there to see him. Harry refuses to see anyone.
55 Daytime and Harry is in the kitchenette writing
his will before going to school. To his surprise, Paul enters. "We're
going up to the school'" he says.
56 Trailing after his brother as they stride along,
Harry asks what's going on. It turns out that Sean had found out about
the incident with Mucker and told Paul. Harry is stunned.
57 Harry and Paul stand near the school gates. Harry
is to identify Mucker. When he does, Paul seizes Mucker and lifts him
by the scruff of the neck. "How old is your big brother?", "Fourteen".
Paul throttles Mucker. "If ya pick on me brother again I'll bleedin'
kill ya." Mucker flees in terror. "You stuck up for me," Harry says.
"Nobody picks on a Cronin," Paul snorts.
58 Harry is racing along a road. It's like he's on
air. He acts out grabbing Mucker and throttling him as he runs. Finally
he arrives at Sean's house.
59 Harry sits at the kitchen table talking
excitedly to Sean about what's happened. All the while he munches
everything in sight. Sean's mother thinks the poor child must be
60 Mount Jerome cemetery. Harry and Sean explore,
finally arriving at the father's grave. When Sean asks Harry if he
remembers his father, Harry talks without emotion; "I was only small. I
was being sick and I was leaning over the toilet and he leaned down
beside me and rubbed the back of my neck. I think I remember that. I
was only small and he died after that. He wasn't really my father. My
father lives on Mercury." Harry walks away from the grave and Sean
joins him, putting his arm around Harry the way pals do. Harry puts his
arm around Sean. Sean rubs the back of Harry's neck.
61 In his room at night, Harry lies out the window
while talking to Max about the fact that the Mercurians knew all along
that his big brother would protect him. He announces to Max that
they'll be going to see Sean after homework next day to swop comics.
The lights appear over the roof and Harry flashes green and white. The
lights flash back - green and white. Harry smiles.
62 The green and white lights travel across the
starry sky. Run end credits.
DRAFT ONE, MARCH 1994.
Feeling this treatment was solid enough to guide me in the writing of a
first draft of the screenplay I headed for the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in
Annaghmakerig for a week. I had applied to the Centre months before,
explaining my situation and seeking permission to avail of their
service. Having been considered by their committee, I was accepted and
could book a room there for the third week of March. I arrived in very
serious work mode and was lead to an attic room which would become my
home and sanctuary.
It's difficult to express just how valuable a service the centre
provides. Years ago, I had read 'Gulliver's Travels' and in the full
version the story is told of intellectuals who live on clouds. They
have own eye fixed on a book and the other fixed on the sky. Each has a
boy walking beside them, and the boy's task is to tip the intellectual
with a balloon should he be treading near the edge of the cloud. In
Annaghmakerig I felt that pampered. In my mansard I lived and breathed
the screenplay. I have read much about scriptwriting, and was mindful
of William Goldman's advice that SCREENPLAYS ARE STRUCTURE. I felt I'd
worked a lot on the structure. After that, he advised getting into the
script and writing it quickly.
Writing quickly is exactly what I did. I lived and breathed the script.
I slept when I was too tired to write, then woke at whatever hour to
carry on with my work. The only time commitment in the Centre was that
everyone would gather for the evening meal. This I would do and indeed
it was a great link with sanity to sit and talk a little with the other
people staying their. I met an old friend, Maeve Ingoldsby, and we had
a few brief friendly chats. The plain, shocking truth is that I wrote
the first draft of THE BOY FROM MERCURY in four days. I spent two days
reviewing something else - a stage play I was trying to revise - and
then I completed another sweep of the screenplay on the Saturday before
giving in to the social aspect of Annaghmakerig and going for numerous
drinks with other artists on my last night there.
The first draft of the script was dated March 17th - Saint Patrick's
Day. When I got home on Sunday I was weary but elated.
I've noticed that once I write a draft I'm convinced it's the
definitive one and completely faultless. That feeling lasts for about a
week after writing it, and then I start to cool off. Within a few weeks
- and it does take me a few weeks - I can listen calmly and objectively
to criticism. After a while I can start addressing the criticisms and
if I think after my own deliberations that the criticisms are valid I
start looking at how I can address them in a new draft. One thing I
don't like to do is make minor rewrites (sometimes referred to as
'polishes'). I prefer to hold back on a draft until a new one will
represent a significant step forward in the evolution of the script.
The first wave of reactions came from the Irish Film Board, Martin
Mahon, and Eina McHugh. Rod Stoneman's main comments were that
the 'Chuck Solar' sequences could only come across as pastiche and I
should try to find a real serial of the day to use in the film. He also
felt that the start was too slow and the script too long. He felt that
the tension around the Sean 'shooting' was resolved too quickly and
could be developed more, and he thought that the script had too many
endings. Eina shared Rod's view that the night scenes with Harry and
the torch became repetitive and also said she'd expected to see more
magic in the script. Martin felt that the Paul and Mucker scene was the
high point of the story and should be developed more. As I worked
on the script, my own main problem was the huge wadge of scenes with
Harry and Sean that sat in the middle while everything else ground to a
halt. I was also trying to think more about Sean and a way of showing
why he liked Harry in the first place.
The search for a real serial first led to a 'Buck Rogers' one, the
rights of which were held by an American company who could offer an
affordable deal for seven minutes of excerpts. I viewed a tape of the
serial and could indeed see a way that a plot could be extracted from
it that Harry could relate to. Further enquiries, however, led to the
Flash Gordon serial of 1939 which also starred Buster Crabbe. The
English offices of Archive Films, through Angela Seward, supplied a VHS
and I sat down to study it. To my delight, it held far greater options
- Flash is on a mission for his father, he gets into some scrapes that
seem impossible but in the next week he's freed, and above all the
action and direction was far superior to the other choice. I could
identify the five sequences I wanted, plus an extract of voice from
another episode when Flash and his father talk to each other.
DRAFT TWO, MAY 1994
At the end of May I sat down, my thoughts in order, and again quickly
wrote the next draft. Again I felt it was wonderful and flawless and it
was being sent out to potential investors. The most important thing
that happened to it at this stage however is that the European Script
Fund had announced their support for the project and so I sent a copy
of the new draft to them. In its new incarnation as Media 95 the fund
no longer provides this service of script analysis - although they will
put selected companies in touch with script analysts on request. I
think that's a shame and that the process my script went through with
script analysts made it the piece of work which ultimately was
financed. I would never have been able to work alone or from gathered
suggestions and reach the same standard of writing.
The report was exciting and shocking. The form the reports take is very
exacting - first a step outline of the script, then a one page
evaluation ticking of levels of merit between 'excellent' and 'weak'
for such heading as 'concept' , 'characterisation', 'pace' and
'marketability'. Then the report takes the different elements of the
script and analyses these. The first thing that leapt out at me as I
read the mainly positive comments was that Harry' sister was
superfluous. This hit me like a brick on first reading, but within
minutes I could see her fade away. OF COURSE she had to go. She did
nothing for the plot, and blurred such things as the Mother's isolation
and the arrival of Sarah in Harry's life. All that was lost by her
removal was a few gags. The gains were enormous. The report said that
the first half was too slow and the ending vague. Under the heading of
characters it said that Paul's sympathy came out of nowhere, the mother
seemed weak, and Harry could gain by being made more fantastical.
The Board, in the process of making their decision to give the project
production backing, had also read the new draft and at a meeting with
Rod in August he outlined their comments. One query was who exactly the
audience would be for the film - young or adult - and this question
would continue to haunt the film through and beyond its making. The
general feeling was that some scenes were loose and the script was over
long. Also, it was felt that there was no moment of truth for Harry.
The set-up around the bullying was considered weak and in need of more
heralding. There was also some concern as to whether the 'fantasy' and
'real' fights were separated clearly enough. The main view, of course
(or else they wouldn't have made the loan commitment) was that the
project was good.
In early September at the EuroAim Rendezvous I had a meeting with David
Blake Knox who had his own set of comments about the script. One
concern of his was that the use of the Flash Gordon footage might give
the impression that the story was set in the Forties and so something
before seeing Flash should set up the era clearly. David couldn't
figure the character of Sean and we talked about him in an effort to
clarify his motivation in starting the friendship. He also explored
background ideas about how Paul had been affected by the death of his
father. Trying to get to the core of the story, David teased me out
about what was the message behind Harry's world of imagination. I found
myself giving an answer that I realised had echoes in my own childhood
and my more recent past of bereavement and ill fate. The core was that
Harry has been saved from worse trauma by having fantasy become his
father and comfort. This cloak he has drawn over himself is like a
shield as time heals. While we knew that this would never be stated in
the film, the conversation helped me understand my creation a bit
DRAFT THREE, SEPTEMBER 1994
Having assimilated the points made, I sat down very methodically and
listed them down one side of a page and my ways of fixing the points
down the other side of a page. I was at this time also reading every
book about scriptwriting I could get my hands on. These made me think
harder about the structure and quality of writing in the script and I
became ever more critical of my work. Of all the material I read about
arcs and plot points and the three act structure, the one gem that
sticks in my head most vividly was written by Paul Shrader. He said
that scripts had four elements; Theme, Metaphor, Plot and Execution.
The theme was that sometimes one can hide in fantasy to heal pain. The
metaphor was a boy who believed he was from another planet. The plot
was his being brought back closer to reality by making a friend and
bonding with his brother. The execution was the phase that was driving
me crazy. With the script pored over and a further purge on the
dialogue I again wrote the draft very quickly - less than a week. This
again went out to the European Script Fund and to investors or
potential backers. Naturally, it went to Jo. Again I considered it to
be the definitive draft and of a standard that couldn't humanly be
bettered. And again once the creative dust settled I could acknowledge
that I was wrong.
DRAFT FOUR, DECEMBER 1994
There were two major responses on the September draft and the shaping
of the draft to come. Firstly the new report from the European Script
Fund, and secondly the involvement of Jo Manuel who was interested in
the project but not happy with the script.
Jo can be a bit blunt in her responses to things and in my time working
with her through the script I would occasionally have to read her
comments and stay away from a phone for a few days until I'd calmed
down. Often she was right - no one is always right - but part of Jo's
nature is to come across as being very certain in her views. Her
responses to the script were chiefly these; Mucker should loom larger
as a threat in Harry's life with the possible addition of a fantasy
sequence around Mucker. A few scenes, like the one where Paul catches
Harry talking to himself, should be dropped to improve the pace of the
story. A final graveside scene should be added to the script. Uncle
Tony should talk about the dead father in the pub scene. The sub plot
of Paul's character should move more and be bigger.
The Script Fund report echoed some of the points. The bully showdown
should be seen to affect Paul more. The fact that Uncle Tony was the
brother of Harry's father needed to be clarified. Sean was too
intelligent still and was stealing thunder from Paul. This draft of the
script had Sean saying to Harry "I'm sorry you don't have a Daddy' and
this was felt to be too mature and knowing for a little boy.
I had these reactions to hand in early December with my operation
looming and wrote a new draft in a matter of days. Again I felt it was
a better draft. I didn't write a final grave scene because I didn't
feel it would work, but at this stage I was grappling with many
variations of a scene which would flag Paul's change of heart towards
Harry and had written a scene which was an argument between them in the
bedroom when Paul discovers Harry crying because the Mercurians hadn't
taken him away.
At that time I was also in the midst of my first draft of storyboarding
and this was creating new ideas. Harry's nightly ritual of flashing the
torch to the spaceship was developing new texture as Harry would now
get out onto the roof the first time he thought the Mercurians were
coming to collect him.
As the script went out I knew the stakes were getting higher. Karen
Street at the Script Fund said she would now pass this draft to their
toughest and most exacting analyst, while in those early days there was
no way of knowing whether Jo would come back happy with the script.
DRAFT FIVE, FEBRUARY 1995
Of all the drafts, this was the one that was the result of the most
extreme analysis and debate. The December draft became the subject of
two intensive reports, and I was caught in the middle while developing
more visual ideas through the storyboarding.
The 'logline' written by the ESF analyst summed up the film thus "a boy
whose father died when he was little believes he comes from Planet
Mercury and has been sent to Earth on a scouting mission'. In his
criticisms he said that Mucker's menace should be established more
strongly from the outset - this was a point I thought I'd covered, but
would end up going a step further to hammer home that Mucker was a
'baddie'. The new analyst said the first half was too slow - a point
that I also thought I'd covered before. In summing up, however, the
analyst was very positive about the film and believed that particular
US distributors would be tripping over each other for the rights. The
main concern was with pace and a bit more work on Paul and Mucker.
Karen told me that this was a glowing report to come from that analyst
(who she revealed, by a slip of the tongue, was male). Karen reckoned I
was just about there with a shooting script.
The situation with Jo Manuel was very different. She came back saying
bluntly that she wasn't willing to present the December draft of the
script to her connections and that it needed 'a lot more work'. At
first I was disheartened and of the opinion that Jo was going to turn
out to be another dead end in the search for funding the film. What
made the difference was the fact that Jo's assistant Debbie Davis and I
were striking up a good relationship and she really loved the script.
She had been through it with a fine tooth comb and it was agreed that I
would go to London and spend a day with Debbie talking things through.
I discovered then that Debbie had in fact done an analysis of the
script every bit as intensive as those done by the Script Fund.
There was a lot riding on our day together on both sides. I had also
unintentionally put Debbie on guard by mentioning that I was open to
change if I agreed with it but could not be budged if I thought a
suggestion would be bad for the script. Jo had already drawn her line
in the sand by saying that she would only proceed with the project if
she felt confident with the draft that came out of this session. As we
worked through the script we began by looking at Debbie's analysis and
comments. Ideas flowed easily between us and it would be hard now to
claim credit on either side for who thought of what. In the first
classroom scene, it would be Harry rather than some other pupil who
chuckles at Mucker's misfortune and is kicked at by Mucker when
Dowdall's back is turned. It was also decided that when Harry meets
Sean the latter is hiding from Mucker and this threat is further
reinforced. A scene in the schoolyard when a depressed Harry imagines
Dowdall as Ming and so on was dropped. Debbie thought Harry shouldn't
stay at Sean's house for the night but rather the opposite - and I
didn't agree thinking this unbelievable. She felt that not enough had
been done to show Harry's move closer to reality after being helped by
his brother. Debbie sought a more open heart to heart conversation
between Harry and Paul about the loss of their father. She also sought
more scenes with Uncle Tony around the house - and this I couldn't
figure as I believed nothing more of Uncle Tony would move the story.
We talked through this and then took a stroll, sitting in a nearby park
as the redoubtable Debbie then opened her copy of the script and
started going almost line by line through comments to weed out what she
saw as a lot of repetition. Much of the change suggested in this was
acceptable to me and by the end of the day we seemed to be in tune
about the script. The Mucker element was becoming bigger and would
register from early in the script. Some scenes were being dropped and I
would consider some of the overt dialogue changes being suggested. Even
by that night I was starting to question what impact the sum of these
changes would have on the script, but as I headed back to Dublin next
day the February draft was in the making. It would be referred to later
by Karen Street as 'a draft too far'.
In a nutshell, the response back from Jo was that this script was great
and just needed a few tiny adjustments before she started sending it to
potential investors. I declined from doing such a tweak and preferred
to wait until the response from the Script Fund analyst. When that came
it was with alarm bells blaring.
The logline on the report this time, tellingly, described the film as
the story of 'a boy who lives in a fantasy world forced to confront
reality when he is challenged by a school bully'. The draft was
described as 'less magical than before' with cuts made to perfectly
good material. The plot was described as clumsy and the analyst urged
that this draft be entirely abandoned and a new draft be devised
working from the previous one. The report ended with the line
'the producers should seriously consider a professional script edit'.
This line drew a hollow chuckle from me. The script was up to its
eyeballs in script editors. What it needed was the reinstatement of one
voice - mine. I had lost my way and was only going to find my way out
of the mess by regaining my grip on the story.
The process of writing this draft brought many improvements to the
script. Even its flaws were to the script's ultimate advantage because
now I could start to see what didn't work and why such things didn't
work. All that was needed next was a clear mind and courage on my part
to write a draft that I could say was truly the best the story could be
and fuck the begrudgers.
DRAFT SIX. MARCH 1995
By fortunate coincidence, all this trouble over the script happened
just before I was due to travel on work and holiday. It gave things a
chance to settle in my mind, and I would peep at the script from time
to time to ferment the new draft. I came back and sat down at my
computer and opened up the December rather than the February draft. I
then started to work my way through trying to keep the best of the
February changes while bringing in my new choices. In the first
classroom scene it would be another boy and not Harry that Mucker
bullies. But then I added a following scene in the corridor where we
see Harry witness Mucker pushing the boy around - this was the best I
could offer as a way of registering Mucker as a threat in Harry's life.
When Harry meets Sean I went back to the old way without Mucker. A
scene which wasn't put in at this time but was written later (at Jo
Manuel's suggestion because she thought the script was short) was a
variation on a long-dropped scene of Paul complaining to his Mam about
the fact that she's too soft on Harry. This helped get some fix on why
Paul hadn't been connecting with Harry and sets up the dynamic of
relations in the family further. After Sean and Harry are reunited and
Harry tells his secret, Mucker came back in as they see him and Sean
tells the story of being robbed. This brought things back to the way
they were. The scene in which Harry leaves the 'Mercury Man' note in
Mucker's desk was up much earlier in the script to try keeping the
subplot alive. After the fight, Harry is so upset when the Mercurians
won't come for him that he nearly steps off the roof - here Paul comes
out and I wrote a new draft of what they say and don't say to each
other that felt finally right for the needs of moving their
relationship forward. This would mean that Paul's intercession would
not then come out of the blue. When Paul comes home to take Harry to
the school, I wrote new lines for the mother which show that she
approves of Paul's new role and when he promises not to do anything
extreme his Mam smiles and says "there's the good man" thereby
acknowledging the fact that Paul is taking a step into the shoes of the
Karen Street read the script and felt there was no need for it to go
for further analysis. Jo and Debbie came back saying that they were
happy with it and Jo began to send out copies. There would be further
changes but only a few to that draft as it became the shooting script.
The real final draft of a screenplay is the transcript of the finished