Thursday, August 2, 2012

Making Irish films that people want to watch: my thoughts on Mark O'Connor's manifesto

Mark O’Connor, the writer and director of the low-budget feature film "Stalker", read this manifesto out at the Fleadh, before a screening of Stalker.

I like the idea of someone putting themselves out there and bothering to write up a well thought-out manifesto. There’s something brave and maverick-ish about this. Vive La Revolution and all that! I like even more the fact that he had the balls to stand up and deliver it in public (it’s also printed in this month’s Film Ireland magazine btw).

However, I do disagree with him on a bunch of points. Actually quite a lot of points.

I do agree that we are experiencing a bit of an “Irish New Wave” and that there’s a lot of interesting stuff being made. I also agree with him that Charlie Casanova has an “astonishingly powerful cinematic voice” and is one of the most intriguing pieces of work ever made in Ireland. And on a no-budget at that. But…

He goes on to say that “We have for too long focused on perfecting the script when in fact some of the finest work in this country, such as ‘Tin Can Man’ and ‘Pavee Lackeen’, came about through a uniquely personal way of working. These films show that the logic of film can work in a very different way than a rigidly plotted out story on paper.”

This is where my heart starts to sink. Like most writers, I believe that starting a film without a properly worked-out script (not necessarily rigidly plotted, there has to be room for manoeuvre) is like starting to build a house with no clear blueprints. What do you think the final product will look like? If the builder is a complete genius and manages to make it work, it will still be great. If he’s an average Joe, well…

When this kind of point comes up, people always mention Mike Leigh. Yes, Mike Leigh can start with nothing more than an idea and improvise a whole film. But Mike Leigh IS a complete God at what he does. Most directors are not Gods (most writers aren’t either, for the record).

But there’s more.

“Unlike the ‘Auteur’ or ‘Shreiber’ theories favouring either the director or the writer as the true author of a film, the ‘Fís’ Theory holds that a true singular voice can only be attained when the director is also the writer. If the director does not write it then they must rewrite it and reinterpret it into their own vision”.

This reminds me of when I went to a screening of “Our Wonderful Home” by Ivan Kavanagh at JDIFF a few years ago. Following a silence during which you could smell the depression off the audience, a woman got up during the Q&A. She asked Ivan Kavanagh (rather pointedly) whether he thought it had been a good idea to write, direct and edit the film himself. She was heavily hinting that it might have been better to get another perspective.

For me, and I accept that this is not everyone’s view, film is a collaborative medium that relies heavily on a bunch of creative people working together. I write a script, a director directs the movie, someone else does the costumes, someone lights the set, etc etc. I have zero interest in directing and if a director has no interest in writing that should be okay.

Sidney Lumet wrote a brilliant book on making films where he dismissed as '''auteur' nonsense'' the notion that the director is the sole stylistic voice on a film, and he said he went out of his way to give credit to everyone from script girl to star. He discusses how he worked heavily with the writers on each of his films and always put story first. In other words, he respected the talent of those he worked with and got the most out of it.

Just to be clear, I’m not a writer who always thinks the director is out to mess with my script or who would resent changes being made along the way. I’d think it was strange if compromises didn’t have to be made, or if other viewpoints weren’t taken into consideration. But it’s a rare person who is just as excellent at writing as they are at directing. And I feel that a lot of people are out there doing both not because they can do both well, but because they don’t want to compromise “their own vision”.

If the only way a singular voice can be kept is if the director writes/rewrites the script where, then, does that leave a. directors who can’t write (should they just write shoddy scripts and shoot them? And b. what about writers who don’t want to direct?

That brings me to Charlie Casanova. I’m glad I watched it and I’m glad it was made. It looks fantastic and is a credit to its production designer and cinematographer. It raises great questions about class and about what the ruling class in the last administration were allowed to get away with – what they’re still getting away with.

I just wish Terry McMahon had let someone take a red pen to a script that was indulgent and wearyingly up its own arse (or up its own vagina in the case of the scene where Leigh Arnold inserts a tampon in front of Charlie). This is a film that is so “incendiary”, it thinks there’s something shocking about an act that half the population do many times a day for a whole week out of every month. Are tampons now sexy? Will Ireland now be full of panting men in front of bathroom doors, whispering “Show me the Tampax, baby!” Will Terry’s next film show a smear exam? My tongue is leaving my cheek now.

Apparently, CC is a “Protest film” and “the protest film is not conceived for the market. They are emotionally reactive, born out of necessity and a political and social consciousness”.

I don’t know – and I haven’t been able to find out – whether Charlie made any money, whether it made a profit or whether it even broke even? No one got paid, and I assume Terry put a fair bit of moolah in himself. Either way, should films not be conceived – at least to some extent – “for the market?”

I’m thinking of an Irish person at home on Saturday night, who wants to go and see a film. First of all, he or she is likely to dismiss an Irish film as an option – even if there is one available to watch in their local cinema. Let’s be honest about this. Irish people tend to think Irish films are shit.

And why is this? There are a lot of possible reasons – lack of proper distribution, poor development processes, lack of money, but I think the biggest problem is that the films are not, as a general rule, entertaining. I think the average person, who’s had a hard week at work and just wants to be gripped/made cry or made laugh for two hours, is not going to pay to see what may well be what a friend of mine likes to call a “tap-dripper”.

In case you think I’m saying that all films need to be Michael Bay-like (perish the thought), Mississippi Burning is a highly entertaining film as well as being powerful and informative. So is Medium Cool. So is an excellent Palestinian film called Amreeka. I remember watching the TV documentary drama "Who Bombed Birmingham" when I was very young and it’s stayed with me, scene by scene, ever since. It was so well written and well presented that it took me by the throat when I saw it.

But film is a medium that is designed for people to watch, preferably en masse, in a darkened cinema. I believe – and this is my manifesto if you like – that we need to think about the end user. The guy or girl paying for a ticket to watch something that we have created. We owe it to the audience to come up with something great, something that will leave them wondering, or laughing, or crying. And yes, thinking.

I watched two trailers for Irish movies today that (hopefully) will do those things. Two very different films, too – Citadel and Grabbers. I’m willing to bet that both of them will make money AND leave the audiences feeling like they got their monies worth.

I agree wholeheartedly with Mark on this last point – and I’d like to thank him for writing a manifesto that will encourage debate and hopefully lead to some great films being made. Because we think we can agree that we all want that.

“We need to build our indigenous film industry by making it about ourselves instead of trying to replicate the foreign model. For this movement to reach its full potential we need to promote Irish cinema as an important part of our culture and bring this new wave more into the mindset of Irish audiences. We need better models for the distribution of Irish film and we need our television stations to show more support for the industry. We should not be looking to work within a hierarchy but in a collaborative environment”  


Jude the obscure said...

Did anyone else notice the contradictions within the following sentences...

"the ‘Fís’ Theory holds that a true singular voice can only be attained when the director is also the writer. If the director does not write it then they must rewrite it and reinterpret it into their own vision”.

"We should not be looking to work within a hierarchy but in a collaborative environment”

These two statements written within the same manifesto show up the text for the confused and half-baked self-promotional piece that it is. He cites the french new wave as a similar guidepost, little realising that it had backing form the french government in funding, as did the german new wave, something O'Connor says to avoid. The movement that this piece seems to be invoking the most is the recent mumblecore movement in America, films that few if anybody outside of film circles actually saw, and in most cases with good reason, as they were shallow exercises in youthful middle-class post-college navel gazing. But in the age of the cinematic digital revolution, who can stop anyone from making a film?

There is a lot of passion in the piece, but it is lacking in the intellectual credibility that gave purpose and belief to real manifestos written by the likes of Truffaut and Pasolini in the 1960's. Unfortunately, I have to say, that the manifesto is equal in quality to the films that these Irish film-makers are creating, certainly to be applauded in the achievement of completion, but of little actual cinematic value ("Between the canals" by O'Connor being a case in point, a terrible film). I will always be looking overseas for cinema of any decent quality. I get the feeling that this was little more than an attention seeking self promotional exercise, in order to grab some headlines for his newly founded Stalker Films company who are in the midst of trying to raise funds for future projects. Like most film lovers across the globe, I just ask that the right people are in charge of making the films, but in this case, I have my sincere doubts.

eilism said...

I haven't seen Stalker or Between the Canals, so I certainly can't comment on Mark's work. I do think he wrote the manifesto to encourage debate and I'm glad he did because it certainly has!

The problem is, it's Catch 22. Irish people tend to have a low opinion of Irish films, so they don't go to see them. So there isn't any money to make better ones. I disagree that you always have to go overseas for decent films - there are a lot of terrible French and German films too, for example, and I've liked at least some of the films made here. I thoroughly enjoyed The Guard and Adam and Paul, and I loved Intermission. said...

Good to see this discussion. No reason why a writer cannot work with director and actors improvising to shape the story and script it to best effect. It works well in theatre, and some writers love the adventure of being open to change and develop as they go. Mike Leigh works as a writer with his actors, then goes into director mode for shooting. More rehearsal time is needed, but the process is way more exciting and the end result? Unpredictable yet satisfying. Have I done this myself? Yes, and it is always rewarding..

Devin said...

I'm back after five years in Australia, and something of the same debate is happening there, where Australian films (with very, VERY rare exceptions) consistently do not find an audience. The consensus there now is that either you make Australian films for an Australian audience with a budget of - maximum - one or two million dollars, or you make films that are going to have international appeal. Otherwise your films will lose money - and this is show BUSINESS, after all. And with an audience at least four times as big as the Irish one, that suggests that we're looking at micro-budget features only when making Irish films for Irish audiences. On the other hand, there's no reason why you can't make Irish films with a strong Irish voice that have international appeal. You only have to look at IN BRUGES or THE GUARD as examples. Proportionate to the Aussies, we have enough A- and B-list actors and directors to be able to get those low-budget (in the Hollywood sense) films up.

There is too a contradiction in the idea that the director must also be the writer in order to have a true, singular voice, yet the call is for collaboration. Some directors write really well, just as some writers direct very well, but the assertion verges on subscription to auteur theory, which is horseshit (although the French invented it, they never really believed it), and an ego-driven effort by directors to elevate themselves to cinematic gods. The best directors are pure collaborators, leaders who understand that they are but trusted servants of the story, whether that story comes from themselves or from a writer, or in development with a cast of actors.

Which brings me to the Mike Leigh thing. That's all fine, really. He makes high-quality low-budget films that attract just enough of an audience that they generally don't lose money, and that's valuable. But here's the thing - there is very little money available to fund film-makers in Ireland. If a director can't present a script that shows the funders just how f***ing good the film is going to be, why should they expect to get money ahead of someone who does? The French - and to a lesser extent the Brits - can do it because they invest huge amounts of money in their industry. Plus, while the French churn out a lot of films every year, some of them even good, they do tend to keep giving money to a coterie of about thirty 'auteurs' to keep making horrible, unfunny "comedies" about the travails of a bunch of horrible, unfunny middle-class arty types and their vacuous relationships, and the reason they do this is because (a) they have a cultural mandate and the money has to go somewhere, (b) they have rules in their cinemas and on their TV stations that a certain percentage of the content must be local and (c) people are willing to watch local work that's of a standard lower than a lot of imported product for the simple reason that it isn't dubbed. We in Ireland have to compete in a tiny market-place with productions for whom the economies of scale are simply irresistible. We don't have the money to give to the Mike Leighs of Ireland, it's so rare it's valuable, which means that it has to be protected, and the protection available is - the script.

Lastly, I'm suspicious of any talk of "finding the Irish voice". What does that mean? I'm a 42-year-old man who grew up in a middle-class suburb of Dublin, by the beach. My frame of reference is going to be very different to a 19-year-old boy coming out of the Bogside, or a sixty-year-old woman from a farm somewhere in Co. Limerick. Find your own voice, by the simple dint of your being Irish it will become part of the "Irish voice". That's what Jordan, Sheridan et al do. George Miller wasn't thinking about the "Australian voice" when he made Mad Max, he was thinking about making a kick-ass action movie on a low budget. He was thinking about his own voice.

I should stop now, I'm ranting.