Someone Else's Dream
As a film editor in RTE I had the opportunity to work almost all year round on large-scale drama or documentary. I left that job in 1986 because by then RTE had ceased producing bigger material on its own and so it was only in the freelance world that I could carry on working on film after film enjoying fresh challenges. Meanwhile, I never really entertained the idea of directing because all around me were Irish film makers who might only get a chance to direct once every five years or so but while writing was another area of self-expression, my need to work and be busy could never be met as a film maker in such a parched environment and The Boy from Mercury happened with relative ease.
The newly re-formed Irish Film Board gave development funding, as did the European Script Fund. The Board and RTE invested in the film and ultimately the clincher was two thirds of the budget coming from Canal Plus. I wrote and directed the film and was co-owner of the Irish production company. I had a huge amount of creative freedom and the film went on to win awards and have a mixed life in the marketplace. Almost as soon as I'd gone into editing Mercury I was off and running with development of my next project. I had always kept in mind advice I'd received from Bill Miskelly who told me that after his film The End of the World Man started picking up awards he was being approached by distributors asking what he was doing next. Bill didn't have anything ready and by the time he had another script, interest had cooled. So I wanted to be ready. In the year after the first screening of Mercury, I was putting a huge amount of effort into making my sci-fi novel-turned-screenplay "Mothership". I had received development funding from EMDA and the promise of production funding from the Irish Film Board. I spent a few months working with production designer Tom Conroy on concepts and storyboards, and there was a comprehensive budget and schedule. In 1996 my Apollo Films partner Dave Whelan and I came back from a "EuroAim Rendezvous" love-in in Luxembourg under the impression that we had the funding to make 'Mothership' but when it actually came down to the details there was no follow through. By that time, I had been approached (mostly through a set of lucky coincidences) by a company in New York called The Shooting Gallery about a film they had in development called The Bumblebee Flies Anyway. Based on my response to the script and a meeting with them, they had selected me to direct the film. I greeted this as a marvellous opportunity; to direct a film in the US. Not only that, but to achieve the continuity of work I felt was so important. I remember reading an interview with John Sayles where he mentioned a director he liked and then "going back and watching his first three films to see how he'd started out directing". Equally, at a seminar at a past Cork Film Festival, Stephen Frears spoke of directing his first three films before being able to relax enough to get some grasp of what he was doing. I wanted more directing experience under my belt. Working in the US, the interesting challenge was the fact that I was starting as the complete outsider.
The Shooting Gallery is headed by a group of close friends, most of the crew had worked together before, and producer Steven Haft had some major credits to his name. I had not been allowed to bring any of my team onto the film - cameraman Shay Deasy, for instance, or editor John Victor Smith. Yet I started out with the naive view that I was working as I had done on Mercury. Through most of pre-production Steven Haft was in Poland (producing Jacob the Liar, a Robin Williams film). But when he returned a few weeks before shooting I discovered that he wanted to be heavily creatively involved. A week before we started shooting he did a major redraft of the script I had rewritten over six previous drafts. This threw me considerably - he didn't so much change the structure as change the tone of the dialogue. Being affable - in retrospect being weak - I wound up accepting these changes. On day one of the shoot I had a taste of things to come, Steven had me redo a set-up (a take in which Elijah Wood smiled). That afternoon, as we were doing a scene of Elijah and Rachel Leigh Cook driving, Steven was sitting behind me on the low loader looking over my shoulder and tapping me saying "try this ... try that ...". Later, I had an argument with him. But again I took the overview of feeling that maybe he was making good suggestions. The shoot continued like that and the weight of his presence became more and more oppressive for me. Steven's attitude was clear and absolute; I was a director for hire. My job was to deliver the film the producers wanted. This view was ultimately supported by The Shooting Gallery, and in editing my being a "director for hire" became all the clearer as reaching an agreed final cut wound up taking nineteen weeks of recutting and audience previews. My taste of the American way was made all the more bitter when my choice of composer, Stephen McKeon, was reversed. As a film maker, the prolonged edit had another effect; I got to spend an inordinate length of time growing unhappy with how I'd directed the film. Steven had once described my directing style as "very editorly" and over time I came to agree. I felt I had broken the scenes down too much into singles and done little that actually brought life to the frame.
I came out of the experience with a few very clear lessons; from now on, I don't work with a producer who feels his/her role is to be on set telling me how to direct. And I want to get away from shooting for the cutting room.
When I was first approached by US producer Ben Goddard with Taliesin Jones, I told him plainly what I would do if a producer wanted me to change what I was doing on set; I would simply stop shooting and sit down with everyone to discuss what I was being told. I would, in otherwords, derail progress rather than do what I had done on Bumblebee where in fact I facilitated Steven's interference/creative input. The Testimony of Taliesin Jones is, in many ways, The Boy from Mercury revisited. It's the story of a twelve year old boy whose parents have separated. He makes friends with an old man who is also a healer. And the boy has many flights of imagination; there's a lot of magic realism to the film. The challenges in this film appealed to me greatly. This time around, I would be working with some very experienced actors; Jonathon Pryce, Ian Bannen, Griff Rhys Jones and Geraldine James to mention a few. This time around, also, I had a bigger (though still modest) budget and a longer shoot (eight weeks). And I wanted to make a film in which the frame was much more alive. The initial problems with Taliesin were to do with funding, with the start date getting pushed several times as I bounced around hotels and spare rooms in Dublin, London and Cardiff. That frustration was compounded in the early weeks of shooting with growing uncertainty about having the funds to continue. It cast a shadow over the day to day work on set, and in the event it was the US producer's personal financing that kept the film shooting. On this film I worked again with the editor John Victor Smith. Shay Deasy was unavailable, but I chose a marvellous DP, Tony Imi, who has decades of major films behind him. I love working with people who are vastly more experienced than I, and this time around I had the confidence to be open to more creative input from those around me. I had, as always, storyboarded the script and been heavily involved in rewriting. But I was also able to change plans as better ideas came along. That marked a definite creative growth for me. The production designer, Hayden Pearce, was a joy to work with and a visually enlightening influence. But on the final day of the shoot I had a call from the US producer asking me to stall the edit for a month while he sorted out the financial deal. I agreed to this, and the month became another two months of spare rooms and hotels as I waited for the deal to be sorted out. Finally it was - and the producer said, "let's get back to work, and let's fire the editor". Having ploughed all his own money into the film, he had sat in panic for two months looking at the first assembly and come to the conclusion that a man with over thirty years of feature film editing experience (working with people like Sidney Lumet, Mike Figgis, Richard Lester and Pat O'Connor) couldn't edit. I refused. And the film is being edited by the producer in LA, and I have learned a whole new set of lessons about the politics of being a director for hire. And so. I've now directed three films and co-written a US/Irish TV film (Saint Patrick). But each film is at very least a year of my life, and I now realise that either I carry on going from one gig to the next or I make a stand and devote myself to putting my own stories on film. I am choosing the latter, tougher route. I have three pretty strong scripts, but in particular I feel that 'Mothership' is the one that is the unique reflection of my best gifts. It is also intended to be a trilogy and is therefore extremely ambitious. I have received development funding from the Irish Film Board and thanks to that I can work on the 'Mothership' project. The greatest benefit of having made two other films has been that now I feel much more confident as a director and have higher ambitions for how I would make my own films. I understand actors and crew better. I have a growing sense of what can be achieved on film. And I am much more determined to get what I want. In the frustrating stop/start days of Taliesin I often thought about the Paul Brady lyric "Someone else's dreams will get you nowhere" and while I'm not saying I'd never direct for someone else again I know that from here on I will do nothing other than write and stick with development until I get one of my own projects into production. I think that the Irish film industry, the producers I know and my own understanding of the business will make that possible. At least next time around when I go through frustrations and battles it will be for my own dreams. Better to look back on one great achievement than a string of jobs well done. Who knows, I could wind up like the Irish film makers I didn't understand in the past; the ones who stuck to making their own films and as a result had to plough on for years before bringing it to fruition- I'm beginning to understand just how smart you are.