Journey of a storyteller 1: What I know about Directing for Film…

could be written on the little toe of my tiny size three foot…but I am going to learn.

This is what I wrote on my Facebook status a few days ago…not quite on a whim, for having been engaged in the grunt work of writing for more than half of my life now, I have been thinking on the topic of visual storytelling for quite a while; and in particular, what it takes to be a Director…and do I have ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ turns out to be?

Alexander McKendrick once said, Film writing and directing cannot be taught, only learned, and each man or woman has to learn it through his or her own system of self-education.

Makes perfect sense to me. Books can tell you how it all works, college courses can teach you how it all works…but, perhaps it is in the praxis of the process that is most beneficial.

A wonderful quote from Frank Capra comes to mind; a hunch is creativity trying to tell you something…so, I guess I need to pay attention now, and get real about my hunch! Getting to know every aspect of the process of film production is a good place to start, and will be the next step I take on my journey as a storyteller…

Photograph is copyright of Errol Farrell. 2012

Of terrible and splendid things…

In 2016, the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising will take place in Ireland. A rebellion that raged swiftly and momentarily in an era when the First World War was raging on (a war that, under British rule, many Irish men had already signed up for and were fighting in…and dying for) and when ordinary citizens of the time frowned upon, and indeed spat upon the rebels on their capture and surrender.

Only after the execution of so many of those young leaders, Patrick Pearse, Joseph Plunkett and Thomas McDonagh amongst them; teachers, poets and artists, did the general public take heed of what WB Yeats described as the terrible beauty born…and the quest for independence raged on through the youth of the Irish Volunteers…

Through the medium of film and cinematic exploration, there has been little made in the telling of the stories of the male and female insurgents of 1916, Michael Collins being the exception. Interned at the age of 25 in Frongoch in Wales, for his part in the Easter Rising, upon his release, Collins went on to mastermind the guerilla war against British Rule, which resulted in a truce that enabled him to lead a delegation to London to sign the Treaty in December, 1921…a move that divided a nation and culminated in the Civil War of 1922. In August of that year, Collins was dead, and Ireland was changed, changed utterly.

Now, with the centenary beckoning to offer us all a time to reflect on how far we have come as a nation,  it is no surprise, that in the writing world, a plethora of ideas for novels and scripts are circulating already. So, it was interesting for me to go along to an event recently organised by the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, and co-hosted by the Irish Film Board,  to see the five finalists of the UNTITLED Screenwriting Award pitch their film projects.

All exploring some aspect or theme of that historic year, the award to the winning project, a first draft development loan from the Irish Film Board, would be €12,000 for a single writer applicant, and €16,000 for a team, ie, writer and director. In my humble opinion, all five shortlisted pitches, each presented to an audience and in front of an industry judging panel, had potential for support towards further development.

Anne Marie Casey pitched a biopic she is writing with her partner, author Joseph O’Connor…Grace 1916: The story of Grace Gifford, woman, artist and icon of a revolution…the only project to look with any real depth at a compelling aspect of a woman’s life during the period, and one I would definitely want to see!

Hugh Travers gave a very entertaining pitch with his project, The PlayersA black comedy about ex-IRA members who join an amateur drama group to commemorate the centenary of the 1916 Rising. Jasmina Kallay presented her drama Das Irland: A tale of what if.  What if promised German help had materialised in 1916? and Virginia Gilbert pitched her drama The Boys: Everybody remembers a great teacher but how many are willing to die for one?

The winning pitch came from Jamie Hannigan and Michael Kinirons with their noir thriller Come Monday, We Kill Them All April 1916:  A down on his luck smuggler reluctantly agrees to help a wealthy politician find his missing daughter only to become embroiled in murder, conspiracy and rebellion…potentially fascinating…trench coats and tribly hats at the ready!

Each project was very different, and as alluded to earlier, there is a wealth of varied ideas out there that have the potential to create exciting, dramatic insights into the lives of not just the key characters of the rebellion, but also, to be a window into the lives and struggles of the ordinary people who lived through those turbulent times in Dublin, 1916.

Which begs the question…if they could see now what they fought for, what they suffered for, and what they died for, what would those men and women of 1916 think of Ireland, one hundred years on?

Featured Image: The Women of 1916, Cumann Na Mban, sourced from http://saoirse.21.forumer.com/a/

I never did cheesecake; I just used my hair…

What defines ‘sexy’ in a woman?

From a female writer’s perspective, I ponder this question time and time again. Now, I’m sure that if I carried out a survey, I would be overwhelmed with varied and perhaps, batshit crazy responses from both sexes, and would probably be none the wiser at the end of the process.

It’s personal, after all.

And while I know it when I see it, it can be hard to define. It’s intriguing that while physical appearance has a huge role to play in the make-up of sexual allure and magnetism, I’m sure we can all name at least one symmetrically, flawlessly-formed specimen of human perfection that is the furthest from sexy as you can imagine…I’ll mention no names on that one…so, perhaps it is more about attitude, a way of walking, talking, glancing, or even, a flick of the hair…

The title for this article is a quote from1940’s icon, Veronica Lake. Famous for roles such as Jennifer in I Married a Witch and Ellen in This Gun for Hire, she is almost as equally famous for her peekaboo hairstyle… a classically sexy look, and one which is constantly emulated by women to this day.

Though her life was full of tragedy and upheaval, for the camera, Veronica Lake carried herself with an air of beauty and mystique. She died aged 51, having experienced a troubled childhood, several broken marriages, the death of her infant child, alcoholism and periods of mental illness. A year before her death, she is quoted as saying, “I was always a rebel and probably could have got much further had I changed my attitude. But when you think about it, I got pretty far without changing attitudes. I’m happier with that.”

So then, if it worked for Veronica, the mystery is no mystery at all…the secret is in the doing. Of simply being confident enough in one’s skin to get the glad rags on and face the world, no matter what…and to meet, full on, the challenge, and in the film industry certainly, the rewards, of the unrelenting ‘male gaze’…

Which makes me think of Marlene Dietrich, who famously said, “Darling, the legs aren’t so beautiful, I just know what to do with them.”

Enough said.

King, Kubrick and The Ahwahnee Hotel

Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining, forever deemed a classic of the horror genre, is nonetheless, a thing of contradictions and theories that run a gamut of themes and ambiguities. The talented legend that is Stephen King, who has admitted that while writing the novel, he was an alcoholic with tendencies of rage, was exploring the themes of the disintegration of the family and the dangers of alcoholism through the medium of the supernatural.

It is suggested that he was not happy with the downplaying of the supernatural element of the film, which he felt “took the “bite” out of the story and made Jack a less sympathetic character.” [Quoted from an interview with Laurent Bouzerau for a television production, A Night at the Movies: The Horrors of Stephen King.] According to King, he viewed Jack as being victimized by the genuinely external supernatural forces haunting the hotel, whereas Kubrick’s take viewed the haunting and its resulting malignancy as coming from within Jack himself.

There are also many social interpretations and references in the film that could allude to Kubrick’s concern for The Holocaust (the flowing of blood scenes and the motif of the number 42) and also of the genocide of the Native American Indians ( the rich tapestry of motifs throughout the hotel set), and the reference that The Overlook was built on an ancient burial ground.

All of these theories are well documented and are open to discovery and further interpretation, so let’s leave that forum to run on and on…

In this article, there are three photographs, not, as Shining fans might first presume, of images of the fictional Overlook Hotel, they are in fact, from the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park. The Ahwahnee, built in 1927,  and named from an Indian word meaning “deep, grassy valley” is now an American national historic landmark building, which I had the pleasure of visiting during a recent trip there.

At the time, though I can admit to a slight sense of déjá vu, while warming up in front of the gigantic open fire, and walking through the big old generous spaces, steeped in native american imagery, rich heritage and art deco, I had no idea of the connection of the place to the film, but have since learnt that Kubrick based some of the interiors used in the film on this very hotel.

Although neither is an exact likeness, Kubrick modelled the lobby and the great lounge for the movie’s Overlook Hotel set, and the Ahwahnee’s lobby elevator doors, with their vivid black-and-red frame, are very clearly featured in the film.

The Ahwahnee is no stranger to Hollywood, having also been featured in the movies, The Caine Mutiny (1954) and  Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day (1996) and has also been host to guests such as Walt Disney, Charlie Chaplin, Gertrude Stein, Ansel Adams, Lucille Ball, Will Rogers, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Greta Garbo. In 1943, the US Navy used the hotel for the convalescence of war veterans…

In the script, written by Kubrick with Diane Johnson, the character of Halloran, played by the wonderful Scatman Crothers, explains to the telepathic young Danny, played by the amazing child actor, Danny Lloyd, of the mystery of The Overlook Hotel…

Not things that anyone can notice,  but things that people who shine can see.  Just like they can see things that haven’t happened yet. Well, sometimes they can see things that happened a long time ago,  right here in this particular hotel – over the years, and not all  of them was good.”

Good or bad, I can’t help but feel that The Ahwahnee itself must harbour many secrets from its interesting past, that perhaps only people who shine can see!

Apart from my personal journal, for this article, I have also researched information from wikipedia.org, and yosemitepark.com and I do not own the copyright to the images reproduced here.

Alcatraz…and a spoiler alert…of sorts!

Scheduled for release this year, Fox TV have slated in the upcoming Alcatraz, a brand new series, described as a chilling thriller centered on the most infamous prison in America, the one-time home to the most notorious criminals in the United States. Coming from executive producer J.J. Abrams and writer and executive producer Elizabeth Sarnoff, the series stars Sarah Jones, Jeffrey Pierce, Robert Forster, Sam Neill, Jorge Garcia, Jonny Coyne and Jason Butler Harner.

This is the latest in a catalogue of film and television offerings based on or about the prison. Other well-known titles include The Rock, The Birdman of Alcatraz, Escape from Alcatraz…and many, many more. For some lesser known titles, see posters at foot of this article.

So I often wondered why the place continues to hold such allure for authors, screenwriters, film and television viewers, not to mention the many thousands of tourists and visitors whom flock there every year. And just like them, I recently took the boat to the infamous, island prison museum. Or rather, I took the tourist cruise.

It is what it is, and to be honest, initially, I was a little underwhelmed. Sure, it must have been a frighteningly harsh reality for the men, some as young as eighteen, whom landed there to face the communal showers and the naked walk of shame to the tiny, five foot wide, nine foot deep cells, where nothing but a steel bed, an uncovered toilet, a tiny sink, and a table and stool, fixed to the wall, complete with the “regulation rule book”, awaited them.

Though a minority few did allow the streaming warm rays of sun that beamed across the San Francisco Bay to filter down from the high-up, fortified windows of the cellblock, most of the cells did not allow natural daylight. The threat and reality of solitary confinement was very real for unruly souls incarcerated there, but no inmate ever had to share a cell, and Alcatraz offered every prisoner three square meals a day, all they could eat, as long as they ate it and didn’t waste food. One of the aspects of the tour of the prison is a story of how all 200 and odd inmates upturned their tables because their spaghetti sauce tasted so bad. A couple of discharges from a prison officer’s rifle was enough to restore order, and later, the quality of the dish! They had access to medical treatment, which the likes of raving, syphilis-riddled Al Capone and the dangerous psychopath, the Birdman, Robert Franklin Stroud, availed of, spending most of their prison terms there in the slightly more comfortable infirmary.

A rehabilitative approach came later, when prisoners at Alcatraz could sketch, paint, crochet (yes, you read that right!) had music hours when they could play instruments, had a library and could read as many books as they wanted, none of a violent nature, obviously. They could study academic courses, earn visitation rights, albeit through a partitioned glass, as well as the opportunity to work in the surrounding island gardens. Some of the prisoners even worked on cleaning and cooking duties in the Wardens house.

Perhaps the Native American Indian, Mexican and Black American prisoners received the harshest treatment, which was mainly perpetuated by other redneck, hick prisoners, forcing segregation that added a further punitive layer for those particular men. This says more about the racism that was reflecting in the society of the time as a whole, rather than a unique Alcatraz experience. In its lifetime as a federal penitentiary, 1934 to 1963, there were eight prisoners murdered by their fellow inmates on Alcatraz, five committed suicide, and fifteen died from natural causes. There is no record of any inmate having died through ill-treatment at the hands of the prison officers.

Harsh is the reality of any punitive system, and based on what I learned from my visit, the practices at Alcatraz seem no worse than anything that you cannot see today in prisons all over the world, where systems are failing miserably in their approaches to punishment and rehabilitation. For instance, the statistics for our very own Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison make grim reading: http://www.amnesty.ie/sites/default/files/HRII/UPR12,%20Amnesty%20International%20submission%20for%20the%20UPR%20of%20Ireland,%20March%202011.pdf  And need I mention Quantánomo? http://amnesty.ie/news/ten-years-guantánamo-–-decade-failure

I’m not painting Alcatraz as a picture of an idyllic prison environment here, far from it, but I am differentiating between the myth of movies and the reality that was. On the wall of the bookshop, there is a quote from an ex-prison officer, that alludes to the movie myth of the twitchy-eyed Governor and the sadistic prison warden…but the reality is that, apart from the unruly few, for the most part, and in the context of the time period, age of the building (The building that exists now was erected in 1906 from a fort that was built in 1859) and its unsheltered, weathered exposure to the damp-inducing elements, prisoners were treated in humane conditions, with inmates and wardens getting along just fine.

So to my earlier question as to why the place continues to hold such allure? Perhaps, as I stood there, on the inside, looking out, and so encased in that ugly, decayed beast that juts out from the belly of such beauty, and the pleasing-to-the-eye skyline of the city so near and yet so far…my imagining of times past and of festive, celebratory nights there gave me an answer. Nights such as New Year’s Eve, when the teasing, haunting sounds of the revellers must have carried over that mass of water and in through the barred windows, and indeed, still do.

And from that sense of place and emotion, I came to understand, sort of, true isolation and the solitary meaning of being completely unfree…and no matter how fantastical the myths of Alcatraz become, that this one devastating glimpse into the essence of humanity must linger in every crack and crevice of that ancient cellblock, prickling the intuitive mind, and taunting the imagination of those very same authors and screenwriters that I mentioned earlier…a mecca for story inspiration, and a haven for the ghosts that surely linger there…immortalised in fiction, but immortalised nonetheless…

On Reflection 2011…

Last post of 2011, and like all seriously driven writers and artists should, time to reflect on work done and results of same that will hopefully lead to bigger and better for 2012.

Most of us can be rather critical of our offerings, and I am no exception, so this exercise is really about savouring the good stuff that has been generated this year, acknowledging the talent that I am collaborating with, and also those who have inspired and encouraged me to move forward, do better and most importantly, to keep the faith!

So, the year kicked off with a meeting with Irish/Italian Director, Vittoria Colonna, a powerhouse of talent, beauty and creative energy, and between us, our collaborative project The Captives, which is set in Florence, Italy, has emerged. The first draft was longlisted for the BAFTA Rocliffe New Writing Forum, Edinburgh 2011, and though there is still some way to go with it, we are getting there…

The Literary Journal, REVIVAL, published an extract from my as yet, unfinished novel, LADY BETH. This is also a screenplay that continues to be close to my heart, and one that I intend to keep pushing towards development. In July, IFTA, in collaboration with the Galway Film Festival, awarded the screenplay a one-to-one consultation with Gill Dennis, Master of the American Film Institute and screenwriter of Walk The Line, amongst others. He has mentored a new  generation of filmmakers, including Jonathan Levine (The Wackness), Jacob Estes (Mean Creek) and Goran Dukic (Wristcutters). A true professional and a gentleman, Gill was highly supportive of LADY BETH, and subsequently put me in touch with a very talented, emerging director, whom Gill has also mentored through the AFI. I am very grateful to Gill for his encouragement, and for making those connections with great people and their continuing work to bring the project forward…exciting stuff…

I have still to master the art of the pitch document, so when two of my projects, Arkyne and Lady Beth, were longlisted for the Fresh Voices Pitch Awards, I was pretty chuffed. Particularly with Arkyne, which was the first screenplay I wrote, and began as such an epic tale, I have decided to finally stop faffing around and complete the novel version, Vampire of Arkyne. I should have the draft ready sometime in 2012…

In August, you can just picture the happy gig when my family fantasy script, PIXER KNOWS!, was awarded the Altantis Prize at the Moondance International Film Festival. Another labour of love, it is a big-budget concept, but so far, despite the win, it has been difficult to get the attention of producers, but, I shall persevere…

Two of my screenplays, both of the horror genre, were placed in international competitions, The Lupii, a quarter-finalist in Write Movies Competition, and Evanescence, a second round qualifier of the PAGE International Screenplay awards. Both are early drafts, so I will be doing some work on them in 2012. For whatever reason, I get a real kick out of writing the horror stuff…for those who know me well, that ain’t no surprise at all…

My blog post on Irish Director Terry McMahon’s abrasively brilliant indie film, Charlie Casanova, went far and wide, mainly due to the fact that Terry posted it on his facebook page…great comments on the post, and indeed, the film, of which praise is certainly well deserved!

Also, I need to give a shout out to the members of my Screenwriting Group for their support and endurance of my meanderings, and to Dermot Tynan of Claddagh Films, for his positive actions, as opposed to just talking encouragement…much appreciated…

So, all and all, on the writing front, it has been a positively productive year, which generated work and new relationships that I hope, will carry on into 2012…and as I contemplate the beginnings of, as yet, undreamed worlds, I will end on the wisdom of Shakespeare…

To unpathed waters, undreamed shores.

The Librarian’s Cellar: At the Cinema: A fractured view of Charlie Casanova

Up to the point of me getting along to the Irish Film and Television Academy premiere of Charlie Casanova, the hype had been immense, much to the credit of Writer, Director and Producer, Terry McMahon, who kept pushing forward with his challenging, and yes, abrasive exploration of morality. Not just talking the talk of controversy for the sake if it, he has created a piece of independent, Irish cinema that we have not seen before, and will, I certainly believe, elevate to cult status for future generations to dissect, critique and quote from. And it seems, Terry’s incredible gift as a writer, as well as his tenacity, is paying off. To the right of him, there is the camp of fans that love the film with such enthusiasm, that collectively, they have become a major marketing tool in spreading the word. And to the left of him, the ones who hate the film; don’t get it, walk out on it, fear it, or simply can’t understand what the hell this character is on about. Whatever their feelings, they are still managing to generate just as much hype!

Terry describes his film as being a fractured narrative about a fractured man with a fractured mind. His description is very appropriate, and it got me wondering as to how many of his audience would go home with fractured thoughts of their own! As a film-goer, my quest, for ninety minutes or so, is to empathize, to live vicariously through another life, to walk in their shoes as I re-imagine through the writings of another. Why then, as I settled in to watch this movie, could I not shake an annoying discomfort? I did not like Charlie from the get go, but he’s a sociopath, so that’s a no brainer! And kudos to Emmet J Scanlon for his skill of transformation; from a well-heeled, over-educated, arrogant, yet strangely charismatic man, to a dangerous, viscerally ugly psychopath, and with such unrelenting realism that I truly believed the madness that was unfolding behind his eyes.

Leaving Charlie aside however, I could feel no empathy for any of the other characters. I did not like his wife, her responses to Charlie irritated me. Same for his friends, couples themselves in different forms of crisis. Why were they all so trusting of Charlie, so easily led by him? It irked me, a lot! So what the hell was I still sitting there for, in a cold, half-filled cinema, as the director said himself, for an hour and half of my life that I’ll never get back? What kept me hooked? Yes, I got it, the subtext and metaphor that Terry has spoken of many times, his reflection on society, and how, as a nation, we have allowed previous governments, without accountability, to kick the shite out of us, the immorality, and amorality of the continued criminalization of the poor, the very fabric of ‘family’ constantly under attack, and how we, as a society, continue to allow it, with no consequences and very few raised voices. So, in the thematic knowing of the piece, why was I feeling a tad troubled, yet compelled enough to stay on for the final gut-wrenching scene? (Even if it does end with the hauntingly beautiful and pure lament of Damien Dempsey!)

The answer? FEAR…the recognition of the trait that ironically, was the reason I so disliked the characters in Charlie’s life. So here’s my tuppence worth of fractured thought, brought to the fore by the menace to society that is Charlie Casanova. Terry made reference to the fact that the characters in the film needed to be in their thirties, because to be older, they would have experienced the Ireland of the eighties, and therefore, they would have known too much. Through the decades of the boom, a large proportion of the current middle classes (now the hidden poor, in many cases) have come from the working classes of that decade, as indeed, did Charlie’s people, so for me, the nail on the head has been truly hammered, and perhaps is where my own discomfort came from. In knowing too much from our past experiences, we can hardly bear to see it happening again. Even though it is happening. And if we cannot bear it, then we cannot face it, and so we bury the unease and carry on, minding our own and protecting what we have left with a societal and political lethargy that keeps that hammer raining down on us.  And of our future, and that of our children, we blindly trust the universe, and get up each morning to salvage what hope we have left. Yes, we are fractured, as is our nation, but even in fear, it is the man and woman who get back up every day, get the kids to school and get on with their crappy paid and taxed-to-the-hilt jobs, who will keep that hope alive; but in the doing of the active citizen, the fear of change, and of fear itself, will also continue to thrive…

Footnote: I was recently at a writer’s event, where Terry, in his unique delivery, and I paraphrase here, stated that some people would like his film and some wouldn’t, and if they didn’t, fuck them! I have to admit, the comment riled me up. If I didn’t like it, then it would be right back at him.

I DID like the film, very much, so fuck you anyway, Terry!

 

Charlie Casanova has been acquired by Optimum/Studio Canal, the distributors behind ‘The Hurt Locker’, ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ and ‘The Wrestler’ in a deal that includes a 2012 UK and Irish cinema release:  http://www.charliecasanovathemovie.com/